Sometimes you have to dig a hole to stay alive

Remembering Orme Payne, Part Two of Two

From the Great Depression and prairie drought, to mano-a-mano combat with the Germans in the waning days of war, Orme Payne’s life wove a tapestry of the Twentieth Century.

By Rod Mickleburgh

My friend Orme went through a lot in his final years. But when you’ve been through a Depression and a World War, you learn to take things as they come. During our many conversations, he never complained, never felt he was hard done by, even when he experienced the long months of isolation imposed by COVID-19. “I’m confined to barracks” was his matter-of-fact assessment. Over the phone, he was always cheerful. His yarns and colourful expressions never dried up, aided by a memory that remained intact until the end. And damn, he was funny….

Orme died this past September, his body finally giving up the ghost, after 98 years and five months of a very good life. I miss him terribly.

On Remembrance Day, the first Orme has missed in 75 years, I’m sharing some of his stories and observations from notes I took during our chats, so you can get to know him, too.

Part Two includes a look back to his boyhood and surviving the Depression in rural Saskatchewan, his time in Holland during the final months of the war and his last few years, when he continued to embrace what life had to offer. It’s become a cliché, but this truly was The Great Generation.

“Dad was a homesteader. We never had any animals. He wanted to be a grain farmer. He broke the first 500 acres with oxen and a team of horses. He got tired of the tail end of the horse, so he bought a Case tractor that made furrows with one-way discs…. The CPR went right through the middle of the farm. We got all the railway ties….

“For four or five years in the Depression, we didn’t have two dimes to rub together. We lived in a homestead shack. In the winter, the inside walls had frost right through them… We had room for either a heater or a Christmas tree. We decided we didn’t want to freeze to death, so we didn’t have a tree. The presents were pretty skimpy. I got the Christmas list one year, cut it out and hung it on my wall for years….

We had room for either a heater or a Christmas tree. We decided we didn’t want to freeze to death, so we didn’t have a tree.

“A couple of years, it didn’t rain at all. The tumbleweeds were big as Volkswagens. There were these great big monster winds.  They’d blow our fence apart and pile up dust and dirt against the walls. We called them dust devils. They were small cyclones. You could see ‘em coming. They were full of dust, but we’d run towards them, and they would knock us down on our ass…

“My uncle had a little bit of a crop in Fort Steele. He offered me a job for the summer. I also tried some placer mining. But the gold I got wouldn’t fill a thimble…. I rode a freight train home. It was scary. I was with my friend Dempey Mitchell. We caught it one night in Cranbrook. A flatcar loaded with lumber. The freight stopped in a little place in the East Rockies. We had 15 cents and a few minutes, so we ran up to a store and bought a can of beans and a loaf of bread. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Dempey tore the end off the sliced bread to make a sandwich, and all the slices flew away like a deck of cards….

Vintage Postcard featuring BC Rail logging car chugging through scenic British Columbia.

“I knew all the farms. It was a great place to tramp around. You could see a day on the prairies a week ahead of time…. But we had these long sessions of winter. When I walked to school, it seemed uphill both ways…. We played hockey on the creeks and open air rinks. The referees had little bells, not whistles. We had a radio so I could listen to the games from Toronto. The Leafs had The Kid Line. Busher Jackson, Charlie Conacher and Joe Primeau. The games were sponsored by Robin Hood Flour. I heard the very first All-Star Game. It was a benefit for Ace Bailey…. the Depression was a pretty bad time. But everyone got along. No one tried to hose their neighbour….”

… The Depression was a pretty bad time. But everyone got along. No one tried to hose their neighbour….

In early winter 1945, the unit belonging to Orme and his boyhood friend Gordie Bannerman was transferred from Italy to Holland. Right near the end of the war, there was a fierce, unexpected, nighttime encounter with a troop of Germans, who seemed to come upon the Canadians out of nowhere. That night, both Gordie and Orme thought the other had been killed. The next morning, Gordie crossed a field, heading towards Orme’s battle post, which he’d seen go up in flames. He saw a figure coming towards him. It was Orme. “God, I’m glad to see you, Gordie,” said Orme. “I’d heard that you’d been killed.” And Gordie said: “Yeah, and I’m glad to see you too.” It was a night they never stopped talking about.

“We were sure as hell lucky to come out of that one. They walked right in on us. We were completely unprepared. We had no idea any Germans were in the area. But I had ordered my men to dig holes, anyway. Some didn’t want to do it. But it saved us…. How they missed hitting so many of us in the night, I don’t know. One of our guys fought off bayonets with his fists. I emptied a Sten gun into them. But they got away…. When the smoke cleared, the Germans were either dead or rounded up. The British tanks came in, and their troops took over….

We had no idea any Germans were in the area. But I had ordered my men to dig holes, anyway. Some didn’t want to do it. But it saved us….

“One time we met a bunch of refugees. There were wounded kids, old men and women. The Germans had just demolished their village. Scorched earth. We took a couple of prisoners. There was a young sub-lieutenant about my age. I got to feeling sorry for him, then I remembered what he’d done….

“Delfzijl was this nondescript little port town. But the Germans occupied it, and the British generals who lived in chateaus decided we had to take it. I don’t know why. Everyone knew the war was over. We thought we were home free. We lost 30 or 40 men. It was a bloody shame….”

One of my last chats with Orme took place on May 5, the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Pictures of celebrating Canadian troops and jubilant Dutch citizens were everywhere. But it wasn’t like that for Orme.

“When we got word the war was over, we were still in the line. We took it with a grain of salt. We’d just lost some troops, so there wasn’t much of a celebration. Maybe a beer or two. I remember thinking: the one good thing is that we don’t have to dig a hole every night. And you could go to bed and know you weren’t going to be routed out…. We were up in the north of the country, a place called Winschoten. The Dutch treated us royally. They were tougher than two-bit steaks…. There was also a good major there. He threw a big banquet for us. The only thing I dodged was the fried eel. I dodged that like a bullet…. There were also jury-rigged showers. It was like jogging through a car wash….

The Dutch treated us royally. They were tougher than two-bit steaks….

“We stayed in Holland for six months, but finally made it to London for Christmas. On the way over, we had a poker game on the deck. Everyone was throwing their Italian money into a big pot. High end/low end split. The guy who won picked up the money. Never even counted it. Then he got to England and found out none of it was any good…. On my final leave, I had collected 40 or 50 wrist watches from prisoners. But I couldn’t sell a damn one. The market was flooded…. The only thing I ever sold was a Luger replica, P38 pistol. I got 22 pounds for it….

“A monster liner took us across the Atlantic. It carried 6,000 men…. We landed in New York, and got on the train. A buddy and I took some bread with us and got off in Swift Current. My dad and a neighbour, who had a better car, were there. It was mid-January. Jesus, I’d forgotten how cold it could be…. We stepped off the train, into oblivion….”

About 10 years ago, Orme joined one of the annual “return to Holland” trips organized for vets. “The Dutch couldn’t do enough for you. All the old vets were on tanks. The parade must have been three miles long. Women would hand you their kid, say a one-year old. They wanted to be able to tell that child: ‘You touched a man who helped liberate Holland.”

Whenever I ventured he was a hero, Orme scoffed. “Well, it was real alright. You bet it was. There were a couple of times when I was damned sure I wasn’t coming back…. But my job was away from the guns, in charge of the signals… You don’t have to be a hero to dig a hole…”

Royal Canadian Corps of Signals men at work repairing equipment during the Second World War.

When we began chatting, Orme was still living at home in Port Moody. After a spell in the hospital, he transferred to an assisted-living residence. “I went down from 160 to 125 pounds,” Orme said. “I could stand in the middle of the room, and nobody would notice me.” Still, it didn’t totally slow him down. “I’m doing yoga for an hour, once a week,” he told me. “It’s great.”

He was determined to make it back one more time to his hometown of Neville, Saskatchewan. “Even if they have to strap me to the top of the car,” Orme declared. In May of 2017, he did. “He had a blast,” his daughter Deb reported. The next year, he did it again. Despite breaking both his hips, in September and April, he made it to Neville once more in the fall of 2018, to mark the dedication of the small village’s new cenotaph. “He didn’t want to fly,” said Deb, who shared driving duties with her sister Marjorie. “He wanted to see the scenery.”


Orme Paye on the right, as Legion members gather at the cenotaph in Neville, Saskatchewan to honour Orme’s return to his boyhood village at the age of 96. Photo supplied by his daughter Deb.

One journey remained. After his legs gave out for good, he took up residence in the George Derby Care Centre, where many veterans end their years. Yet Orme always sounded hale and hearty. There was no quit in him. Even when the COVID-19 lockdowns cut him off from family visits, he didn’t complain. Self-pity wasn’t in his vocabulary. Not that it was easy.

“They had the flu in here (before the pandemic). It went through here like salt through a hired girl. It turned me inside out… But there are a few parts of me that are still not falling off. I turned 97 in April. No wonder I have a few twinges. Sometimes I feel like an old crow on a post…. In the dining room, there’s two to a table. But some of the people you eat with don’t know if they’re on foot or horseback. It’s tough, but I think I’ve still got one foot in the stirrups….’

Then COVID-19 hit. “We can’t go anywhere. I’m confined to barracks…. My daughters sit on camp chairs outside in a little park. I’m on the inside, on the phone. That’s the way we have to talk…. But you don’t run into any tanks in here….”

We can’t go anywhere. I’m confined to barracks…. My daughters sit on camp chairs outside in a little park.

He turned 98 in April. “They brought in a birthday parcel for me. I opened it, and my daughters looked on through the back window. We were apart…. I got some nice cards, too. That’s a good reason to live a little longer…. I feel good, but when you get over the hump, you start going downhill….”

The end came on Sept. 6.  “The nurse and social workers all came to say good-bye,” said Deb.

Two years earlier, after the death of Gordie Bannerman, his pal of 85 years, Orme had reflected on the toll taken by the passage of time. “The veterans have been dropping like flies. Our ranks are thinning. I’m the last one I know of from all of us who signed up at Aneroid. The last one standing to deliver the news…”

And now Orme is gone, too. Rest in Peace, my friend.

For more Mickleburgh, visit Mickleblog or the Ex-Press Archive for more.

THE EX-PRESS, November 11, 2020



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