Although I hope to be able to return sometime in the future, in the meantime, I am more than pleased to follow your suggestion and put down on paper the record of my recollections from the time of my stay there in 1953. Even though some are vague and possibly lacking in precision, others are still vivid in my mind and more accurate. As I started putting order in these thoughts, I decided to group them as follows:
Firstly, I will cover the social memories of my stay at Aberthau Mansion (Tri-Service Officers’ Mess);
Secondly, the religious happenings there and at the garrison;
Thirdly, my military and engineering involvement, considering I was a student engineer at that time.
One of my objectives in writing this has to do with the possibility of discovering other participants who benefited from either a stay at the Mansion or having been connected in some other way to the evolution of its history and possibly find someone able to correct some of my vague interpretations of facts or statements.
Aberthau (Officers’ Mess) in 1953 was socially very important. Many prominent people from Vancouver or elsewhere could become social members of this exceptional Military Officers’ Mess, be they former officers or not. It was a refined place where those who belonged could meet on weekends and other special occasions. There, one could go to watch TV (black and white) when not everyone had yet a TV in their home. Another benefit which was well appreciated was that besides fine cuisine with four or five course dinner meals, the place had a well-stocked BAR with choice wines and liquor enough to satisfy the members. One must realize that only there could you have a drink on Sunday, unless in your own home, in Vancouver without breaking the law. For me, at 23 years old, it was all a real eye-opener. Not just that, but many of the members became instant friends with the ones who were living in the house. I recall one member and his wife (ladies were welcome) who were very prominent for having started an institute for the deaf and dumb. Unfortunately, I do not recall their names or the exact name of the institute. With both of them, I learned to become very sympathetic towards children afflicted by this impairment. Furthermore, I remember how they started using 16 mm cameras to record and teach children lip reading, etc. Thanks to them, I could borrow one of their movie cameras to take some little movies of my own in my spare time. I still have one film that I took and which I am in the process of digitalizing so I could transfer it to you if it is found to be pertinent for communication.
Socially, the Officers’ Mess was also very important for the ranking military officers and their wives stationed at the nearly garrison. They had full access and use of the Aberthau facilities and thus were able to follow various programs presented on TV but also attend the movie nights when the latest blockbusters were presented free of charge, of course. Separate ladies’ nightly entertainment was also organized just for them. Besides the dining facilities for parties and gourmet meals, one could play ping pong or compete in the pool room where some officers and residents excelled at winning sometimes important bets. One, if not the best pool player, was the chaplain who often won lots of money from his proud competitors (some very high-ranking officers) and thereby have spare money for charitable causes dear to his heart like support to soldiers and their families or combatants returning from engagement in Korea.
Since my stay at Aberthau was during the summer, I was fortunate to be frequently available to play tennis or play pool or other games. In the evenings, I sometimes had the pleasure of accompanying one or another unmarried daughter of some of the members for functions at Aberthau or elsewhere.
Knowing how to play tennis seemed almost more important than being an accurate marksman with my Laehandfield 303 calibre rifle which I had no time to practice all summer. All important to me and also to many of the resident officers was the well-known and publicized “Theatre Under the Stars” in Stanley Park. I was lucky enough to attend a few of the musicals and most of the time accompanied by one or another young lady I met at Aberthau. Two shows I remember fondly are Finian’s Rainbow and Oklahoma. My love for this kind of musical entertainment was a revelation and a discovery I made while living at Aberthau and I still enjoy it immensely. How did I get to go to Stanley Park to attend these wonderful evenings? Well, thanks to the chaplain, who always let me use his beautiful new 1953 Oldsmobile car to get back home at Aberthau not too late so I could serve his Sunday mass and not fall asleep at the foot of the altar.
At the occasion of my recent visit, I could not help noticing a fairly important change in the size of the property from my earlier time there. The impressive and extensive rose garden spread over a somewhat elevated parcel of land leaning towards Jericho beach doesn’t seem to exist anymore as well as the tennis courts and the pathway to the beach. However, I still revelled in seeing the beautiful existing landscape and gardens surrounding the building, including the famous covered entrance for cars when arriving at the front door. By the way, this reminds me of a potentially interesting anecdote. Once, after a nice evening of diner [sic] and movies at Aberthau, the chaplain mostly referred to as “Padre Berube” (pronounced Pa-Dray Bay-ru-Bay) asked me to drive some of the guests to their homes safely, considering that I was probably the most sober person in the house. I went to get his car in the parking lot, drove in front of the covered entrance protected from the rain, car running, my foot on the brake while the passengers embarked – three in the back seat and three including myself in the front. The lady taking the place next to me, the driver, sat in the middle of the seat, and then accidentally (I think) slipped her left foot to push the accelerator pedal to the floor of the vehicle with a resultant roar of the engine. Thank God, my own right foot was solidly pressing the break [sic] pedal. The high-pitch roar of the engine certainly made a few guests take notice. The various social gatherings that took place at Aberthau were always interesting for me because I could meet not only high-ranking military officers but also non-military people and hear their stories. I remember meeting the Labine brothers who were passing through as guests of some of the members. They had been invited for cocktails and dinner to celebrate their first oil well, located not far from the one originally found by Imperial Oil in 1946, famously known as the “Leduc”. So, after dinner, I was invited to join them for a celebration of their success on a luxury yacht moored somewhere in Vancouver Harbour but I had to decline due to my work duties at the garrison.
The social environment was also enlivened by the presence of military nurses who were officers in their own right. One of them I remember well was named Major Smith who attended many of the receptions accompanied by lower-ranking nurses on her staff. All of them were highly regarded and available to take care of anyone who fell sick at any time and were capable of providing officers and soldiers with medications of all sorts and also fill out medical officers’ prescriptions. I had occasion to go shopping with Major Smith and still have a photo of us walking down a commercial street in Vancouver, looking for the best purchase in town.
Another social activity that most everyone at Aberthau enjoyed was a Saturday night outing to the famous Hotel Vancouver where one could enjoy good music and dancing at the restaurant-night club on the top floor of the hotel. Unlike at Aberthau Mansion, drinking of liquor and wine was a more complicated affair. First of all, the dress code was rigorously applied, meaning, a dark suite and necktie, shiny shoes and the demeanour of a gentleman accompanied by a well-dressed lady. Moreover, one had to present himself with the appearance of almost a teetoller, meaning you had to bring your own bottle of whisky or other choice of liquor and have it well-concealed in a brown paper bag, which you held somewhat hidden until you were directed by a waiter to sit at your table, after the elevator ride up to the splendid ballroom with a view of the entire panorama of Vancouver, lit up for the occasion it seemed. The routine consisted of placing the bottle, somewhat concealed underneath the table. A waiter would show up and ask us to order our choice of “mixers” – coke, seven-up, etc., while he placed a large bucket of ice on the table. What you later paid for, was highly priced ice and soft drinks, which in the analysis equaled the price one would have to pay in any similar place in Montreal. The whole experienced was really worth the effort and also the resulting cost was worth the expense. I believe that almost all residents of Aberthau enjoyed this kind of outing at least once during their stay in Vancouver.
The religious happenings at Aberthau Mansion (Tri-Service Officers’ Mess)
As soon as I arrived to spend the summer, I was shown to my bedroom on the top floor of the building, i.e. the attic. A unique feature, although small in size, was the window serviced with a fire escape outside which lead to the grounds at the back of the building. Soon after setting myself in the bedroom, I was introduced to the chaplain, Major Berube, a World War II veteran who had recently arrived at Aberthau, returning from field duty in the still ongoing war in Korea (rather South Korea). For most people, he was referred to as Padre Berube. He was a unique individual with lots of experience with not only Catholics but also soldiers and their families of all nations. All priests in those days had to say mass every day. After my introduction to him, he immediately asked if I knew how to serve mass. I said, “Yes”, and we became instant friends. His room in the house was regarded as the best available in the mansion. In fact, it had been the former bedroom of the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Spencer, one of the earlier owners of Aberthau Mansion. This room, apart from the Padre’s furniture, also had a tiny little altar arrangement so he could mass if need be. Otherwise he would normally say mass in the chapel at the garrison nearby. Of course, the joke at Aberthau was that the Padre “slept in the girl’s bedroom”, referring to the past when the daughter lived there with her parents. His duties were quite extensive. First, he attended to the spiritual well-being of the residents who were somewhat permanent or passing through. They were officers returning from Korea, including U.S. officers staying at Aberthau for a rest and recuperation from war, and also Canadian officers preparing to go to war in Korea. Moreover, he cared also for the rank and file defense personnel from the garrison, in short, all people of the military, including me, the only COTC lieutenant. He proffered his services to all, be they Christians, believers, non-believers, and anyone of any religion. That was not all; he also looked after the garrison, known as the married quarters section. I think he knew everybody or at least everybody knew him. For a young officer like me (23 years old), the privilege of knowing and serving with this Padre was a unique and valuable learning experience. He was a man who every person connected to Aberthau, appreciated greatly and enjoyed his availability all hours of the day. So Aberthau was not only an officers’ mess then, but also a place of physical and spiritual rest for combatant and non-combatant officers passing through. Occasionally, he enjoyed greatly celebrating what was called a “Drum Service”, a sort of non-denominational Sunday service for the military, and on one occasion a drum service took place in the garden area of Aberthau. During one conversation I had, I asked him what was the best trip he ever made in the world. He answered that I should make the same trip at least once in my lifetime; make sure you do the Alaska Cruise from Vancouver, both ways to and from and you won’t need to look anywhere else for a better trip. To date, I have not yet followed his recommendation.
My military and engineering involvement with Aberthau
It was during my third year at Canadian Officers Training Corp (COTC) at Loyola College in Montreal that I decided to request a posting in Vancouver for my last summer. The previous summer I had spent in Chilliwack with the Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE). As it turned out, I was the only one making such a request from our Loyola Contingent, as far as I know, and to my delight, my request was granted. Come the month of May, 1953, with my last exam written, I picked up my paper (marching orders), including a first-class train ticket for a three-day’s ride on the Canadian National Railway (CNR), from Montreal to Vancouver. Not really knowing what to expect once I got off the train, I took a taxi ride from the CNR station, Vancouver, to the military garrison to report for duty. At the administration office, I was directed to meet my commanding officer in the person of Major Hubard Hubard, no mistake, first name and family name the same. This very welcoming superior was somewhat surprised to see me there. Later, I found out he had not been notified in time of my arrival. Very as he was, he took my envelope, got on the phone, then turned to me and said, “There is a driver with a staff car at the door who will take you to the officers’ mess. Set yourself up where the orderly will direct you, and I will get back to you later.” So I was driven in grand style to Aberthau Mansion. Before getting out of the car, I asked the corporal driving if this was really the officers’ mess that Major Hubard had really sent me to. “Yes, sir,” he said, “That’s what’s written on my orders,” and said, “Have a good day, sir”, and left. I walked in with my bags and was welcomed by the orderly, and shown to my bedroom, which I found much better than the barracks at the garrison. After the orderly introduced me to the chaplain, I later continued introducing myself to whoever crossed my path as I visited the mansion with a sort of amazement. After a week or so of waiting all day at the Mess Aberthau, I still had received no phone call from Major Hubard, so, Padre Berube after a tennis game with me recommended that I go to the garrison and ask to see the Major again. So I did, and he cheerfully apologized for having forgotten about me and then introduced me to some subordinate officers (all engineers) who were ready to provide me with urgent engineering work assignments and put me to work. Some of the more important assignments I received are the following:
- Investigate the stats and condition of large diameter wood pilings supporting the concrete ramps which has served as landings for amphibian war planes near Jericho Beach. I did investigate and produced a report in conjunction with a couple of researchers at U.B.C., specialized in marine borers, called Teredo and Limnoria; sort of wood borers penetrating wood piles leading to their failure.
- Prepare a survey and quantify the amount of backfill needed to repair the dykes protecting the decommissioned aircraft landing strip in Ladner. For this work, every morning I was assigned a staff car and driver to pick me up at Aberthau, drive me to catch the 10 o’clock ferry Ladmer [sic]; go to the dyke and do my job. My report, handed in later was also well received by my superiors. Several other very interesting engineering assignments kept me busy all summer long.
As mentioned earlier, while living at Aberthau, I was also conveniently available to participate in playing tennis with some officers who were resting from active duty, so there never was shortage of players at that time.
Inside the residence, many domestic tasks were the responsibility of the residents. Downstairs in the basement were posted on a billboard what was called the Standing Orders, referring to the general obligations which apply all the time to everyone; time of meals, locking of doors giving access to the building in the late evening, fire safety, periods of general cleanup by service personnel, etc. Also, we had to check daily for specific orders applying to us as individual officers. This segment of duties was very informative for me as a young officer still in training. These duties usually covered one full week divided between week days and weekends. In particular, I remember being designated and required to remain available for sitting as one of three joint military judges for a martial court hearing. This involved sentencing for misdemeanours of soldiers active on the base at the garrison or away from the base as, for example, downtown Vancouver. It mostly had to do with drunkenness, fighting or rowdiness events also covering petty stealing or again not having reported for duties. Summary convictions were decided by the panel of three judging officers and penalties such as loss of privileges, weekend detention and sometimes fines. I remember feeling very nervous at having to judge soldiers older than myself and not well prepared with my knowledge of the applicable military law. In the basement of Aberthau, residents had access to all the necessary cleaning, washing, ironing, shoe shining, etc. Those who preferred could also revert to commercial service companies. Since residents originated from all over Canada and other countries such as the USA, Korea and England, it was in a way an international meeting place. I enjoyed greatly meeting Major Smart from the British Army, who spoke with a heavy British accent which was sometimes difficult to follow. He was here as a highly military consultant and was highly respectful man, an example of gentlemanly behavior, an instant friend at Aberthau to all resident officers. The place was like a teaching school. Several languages were often spoken by different officers and this reminds me of the difficult language courses being taught presently as described in your program brochure. Aberthau Mansion doesn’t seem to age as it keeps reinventing itself. It has been a place of great service to me and others and still continues on its course of excellence thanks to the vision of the City of Vancouver. I hope that whoever reads my humble little recollections of sixty years ago will want to join us and come forward by adding more memories to the history of this unique place in Canada.
In closing, I would like to recount a wonderful activity that was organized by various officers of Aberthau Mansion and the garrison. An annual inter-service golf tournament was the highlight of summer activities. Participants were mostly high ranking officers either living at Aberthau or on the base at the garrison. It involved golf players representing Army, Air Force, Navy and a US commander of any service who happened to be staying at Aberthau. This way several “foursome” for golf were put together. The Army Service Corp. provided ground transportation from Aberthau and the garrison to the airport. The Canadian Air Force provided a World War II Lancaster Aircraft to fly all players to Comox on Vancouver Island and the Navy provided transport from the airport to the golf course in Comox. So before leaving Aberthau during preparations for the tournament, Padre Berube, a great golfer, was expected to win a fair share of prizes. Unfortunately, about one week before takeoff, he had to undergo an operation at the hospital and was unable to participate in the tournament. A last minute replacement had to be found, so he told me I had to replace him, saying to me, “Take my golf bag, go do practice shots in the garden behind the mansion and do your best.” I followed his orders and joined the group for the outing. My foursome consisted of army colonel, an air force commander and a former naval commander from the USA. After the game a big dinner took place and prizes were announced for winners of the different categories of achievement and suddenly my name was called to pick up a prize for highest score which came with a generous round of applause and friendly laughter.
Hoping you will not be too bored reading this account and I wish you and your colleagues’ great success in your endeavours at beautiful Aberthau Mansion.
Yours very truly,
Denis R. Loranger
Photos: (top left) Denis Loranger, (top right) Summer 1953 Nurse Captain Smith of Jericho Beach Detachment and Denis Loranger, Officer Cadet, COTC