“That’s a nice landscape!” I say, looking at the sunset on the projector screen, “Do you know where that is?”
“No clue.” My mother says. She’s sitting on a couch that she shares with a stack of slide containers. The floor is covered with more just like it, they coat the carpet making it hard to tiptoe out of the room without stepping on any of them. This is slide 60 of who knows how many hundreds.
“Next,” she says.
With a click, click the image slides off the screen and is replaced with an image of a church.
“Do you know where that is?”
Another click, click and it seems like there’s a silhouette of someone in the distance. They are wearing a military uniform as they stand next to a monument of some kind, the plaque is too far away to make out.
“Is that him?!” I say, maybe we have finally struck gold.
“I don’t think so.”
A few more clicks later and there was a young girl in a yellow dress, cadets visiting Washington and pictures of my aunt and uncle as babies.
This went on for several days, a quarantine project that my parents had been putting off.
My family has a lot of slides. Mostly from the 50s to the late 70s. As a child of the 21st century, I didn’t even know what a slide was until my mother brought the plastic bin up from the basement. Each slide contains one picture, one moment in time, and almost every single one was taken by my grandfather, Ian Alleslev.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at them, he is the phantom presence that is felt and not seen. In my basement for the last 20 years have been the memories and adventures of a dead man, one that I had never met. When looking at the pictures, the best way to understand the
images, images of the red army in China, tulips in Holland, and the pyramids, is to look at who Ian was and where he came from. Perhaps the best place to start is with his father.
Victor Alleslev was born on February 27th, 1909 in a small town in Denmark for which his family is named, Allerslev Denmark. From a very young age, he was very civic-minded, his father was a school teacher, and the main elder of the local church. During the Spanish flu
pandemic, Victor was a boy scout, and he went door to door in his little uniform giving his neighbours food and supplies. He would later look back on this activity as something very dangerous that he couldn’t believe his parents had encouraged. He loved the outdoors, animals,
and his country. This patriotism was in him from a young age and it was something he would carry with him for his whole life.
When he was 18 he was forced to leave veterinarian college on the doctor’s orders.
While in his college boarding house he would forget to eat, so he was told to take a year off, to not worry about his studies and instead worry about himself. While on this year off, his friend Pete came to him with an ad. Canadian Pacific was promising to bring people to Canada to find work. He said something along the lines of: “If you have to take a year off then why don’t you come to Canada and have some fun?” Having started college at 16, he wasn’t really the type to stay still, so he embarked on this adventure with his friend.
Once landed in Canada, in the year 1928, either in Quebec City or Halifax (this apparently doesn’t matter), he hopped on a train and ended up in Camrose Alberta, where he found a job on a farm. What was supposed to be a year became three, Victor would go on to work in Vancouver, saving money so he could go to school in B.C, once again to study to become a vet. He slowly but surely became enamoured with the expansive country, all the fresh air. As I said, he loved animals, and working on multiple farms with horses and dogs was his
slice of paradise.
Victor’s brother, who was a year older, came to visit the country his brother wouldn’t quit raving about. A week before he was set to go home to Denmark, an accident in a Powell River logging camp took his life. How do you write home to your mother to tell her that her
eldest son is dead? Somehow he managed to. His mother’s reply?
“I have lost one son to Canada, I will not lose another.”
Victor went home and time went on. He’d been absent from college too long to resume his vet degree, and he refused to do over the first two years of the six-year degree. So like his father, he became a teacher. In 1935 he met his wife Grethe, they were married in 1936 and had
their first child Ian in 1937. It wasn’t much later that the war broke out, and his home was occupied by the Germans.
Like I said before, Victor was always very civic-minded, and he was not about to stand by and do nothing. He was a very firm believer in the sovereignty of a nation, and while some of his fellow Danes were not ready for resistance, because they had managed to keep their own
Danish Government, Victor would do everything he could to end the occupation.
Victor was a member of the Danish resistance and was associated with other resistance members. The war wasn’t something he liked to talk about. Maybe it was because it was a troubled memory he couldn’t talk about, or maybe it was because he had been sworn to secrecy.
There is one story, one where his wife and son were around, so it is one that I have managed to hear.
Victor was often very careful with the contraband he kept at home. He had a few documents in his office, and an emergency radio stashed in Ian’s toy box. One night the Germans came to the house to find information, someone else in the resistance had written Victor’s name
somewhere and now the Nazis smelled blood. They tore through the house, ripping up kitchen cabinets and drawers, they ransacked the bedrooms, luckily they didn’t dig too long in the toy box. When they got to the office, they were too busy emptying out the drawers onto the desk they didn’t notice they were burying the documents they were looking for.
By some miracle, they hadn’t been caught; nevertheless, the Nazi’s visit had it’s desired emotional effect. Grethe was shaken, she said after that she couldn’t sleep, she was always worried the Nazis would realize their mistake and come back. But where could they go? They
couldn’t leave the country, and Victor didn’t want to. Not yet. “Why didn’t they help us?” Ian might have asked. “Why didn’t Denmark help us?”
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. We do not wait for them to help us when they are the ones who need our help.” Victor had replied.
When the war finally ended, Denmark was free. Ian’s younger sister, Lis, was born in 1945 and in 1949 Victor, Grethe, Lis and Ian all moved to Canada. The only person alive who I can ask why they moved was four-years-old at the time, but some of the reasons I have heard
over the years are: Grethe was too shaken and could not handle staying in that house any longer, even years later she would wake up from a nightmare in which they had been caught; Victor would not stay in a country that could be occupied again, and while Denmark would always be his home, he could not stay; Victor missed Canada so much, having fallen in love with the north in his youth, and he was ready to return. Maybe it was all of these reasons, maybe it was only two. Either way, they came to Canada.
Victor’s friend Pete was living in Montreal, and despite his love for BC, Victor wanted to stay close to friends. It was in Montreal that Ian joined the Air Cadets. He was one of their youngest members, and he loved it. The war and his father had instilled him with the kind of
patriotism that people today would call sanctimonious, but to him was just a matter of fact.
Nothing screams “I love my country!” more than an 11-year-old in an air cadet program that starts at age 13. Ian loved learning about planes, and cadets gave him the chance to fly them.
However, this involvement in his community didn’t dull his homesickness. My grandmother said it was like he only got halfway across the ocean, he had one foot in Canada and the other always planted in Denmark. He begged his father to let him go back.
“I’ll let you go back, for a year, just to get the homesickness out of your system,” Victor presumably said, “I’ll pay for the ticket there, if you work to save up the money for the boat ticket back. Deal?”
“Deal.” Ian had replied.
After a summer of delivering papers and mowing what must have felt like every lawn in Montreal, Ian had saved up the money. Going back to Denmark was the first journey that Ian had taken on his own. It would be the first of many. Although going back was supposed to get rid of
his homesickness, the year with his grandparents actually made it worse. He missed his family, he missed his Cadet friends and he missed Canada. I guess distance really does make the heart grow fonder.
After his short return to Denmark, Ian was right back in the Air Cadets. They took him on trips to Washington D.C, trips to the flight base in Trenton ON and to an air cadet camp during the summer. This was just the beginning of his military travels. This small taste of adventure was the spark to a flame. He wanted to join the military and become a pilot, flying all over. The cadets had prepared him for the airforce, but they could not prepare him for rejection. The Canadian military in the 1950s wouldn’t allow anyone with less than perfect eyesight to be a pilot, and Ian, unfortunately, wore glasses.
While Ian might have been resigned to his life as a grounded bird, he would not abandon his military career. Determined, he went to Mcgill for Electrical Engineering. Mcgill was a like a whole new world for Ian, he loved music so he joined a barbershop quartet (it was the 50s I’m
going to assume this was cool then). Mcgill is also where he would meet a girl named Betsy.
I truly believe that you can tell a lot about a person by looking through their phone camera roll. I mean, people choose what is most important to them, what gets to take up that valuable digital real estate. The same is true for slides, except you have to be even more
particular, as paying to get slides developed was expensive, not to mention, they take up real space, not just digital. How many photos of planes did I see? How many radar dishes? How many sunsets and pictures of his cadet friends on buses or in front of monuments did I see?
But from the years 1956 to 1960, there is no person more photographed than Betsy. The interesting thing? I had no idea who that was. What kind of a biography would this be without lost love? Betsy was studying to be a doctor at Mcgill. I don’t know how they met, I’m sure it was something like ‘the right place at the right time’, but I do know they were madly in love. Pictures of Betsy in her mother’s garden wearing a pretty yellow dress, a picture of Ian and Betsy with her two younger sisters sitting on her family porch, Ian and Betsy sitting on the couch at Christmas.
They were engaged for several years, Ian had given her the family ring, a beautiful gold band with dark blue sapphires in the center. By what I could see in those slides, they were as in love as two people could possibly be, so what went wrong?
Betsy was American. I don’t mention it to imply it was some kind of flaw, just it’s relevant to the story I promise. She lived with her family in Keene, New Hampshire. Ian would often make the 4-hour drive to take her to see her family. Besty realized that she didn’t want to
be a doctor anymore but rather a pharmacist, and she was going to get her degree somewhere else. After being back in Keene for only a short time, she sent the ring back. Like with most of this story, I don’t know much of what happened. The family story goes like this: Betsy said if Ian wanted to stay with her, he needed to come with her to the states. She wanted to be closer to her family and that was where she was going to build her career. Ian couldn’t leave Canada.
I suppose the downside of patriotism is that it can get in the way of some other things.
“Do you think he should have gone with her?” I asked my mother.
“Well, if it was really meant to be she wouldn’t have asked for the impossible,” she replied.
“If he really loved her, wouldn’t he have chosen her over a country?”
“For him, nothing came before his country.”
Ian, along with his sister, drove down to Keene for the last time to see what could be done. That trip would be their final goodbye.
In 1961 Ian met Jane, my grandmother, at a Mcgill football game. Jane was studying to be a teacher in Quebec and, like Ian, she was the child of two teachers. They hit it off, they were engaged and then in 1963, they were married. The happy couple honeymooned in Denmark.
“Always Denmark! He loved Denmark so much it was always, Denmark this, Denmark that, this isn’t the way it’s done in Denmark!” Jane would say.
It was around this time that his career in the military was starting to really kick-off. He couldn’t be a pilot in the military, but he could be… what did he do in the military, anyway? “Well, I know that he was in communications, and his engineering degree came in handy
when they were putting up radar dishes and satellites and the like. But I don’t know what he did,
and I never wanted to ask because I wanted to save him the trouble of saying ‘I can’t tell you’.” My grandmother said.
So a mystery he took to his grave is exactly what he did while in the military, but in 1964 he was working on behalf of Canada for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). So after their honeymoon, Jane and Ian left for France, and then after two years, they were kicked out. Charles de Gaulle was the French President at the time, and he withdrew France’s military from NATO and wanted all foreign NATO personnel off of French soil. So Ian relocated, along with the other Canadian NATO members, to Holland.
In 1967 Jane was pregnant with their first child, my mother Leona Alleslev, and in March 1968 Jane went into labour.
My aunt Caroline was born in 1973 and my uncle Victor, named after his grandfather, was born in 1979. Both were born in Canada. As military brats they moved all over the country, always coming home to Montreal for the holidays, as that is where both Jane and Ian’s families were. They lived in Vancouver, Halifax, Winnipeg, wherever there was military housing.
If the children felt they were moving a lot, that was nothing compared to Ian’s travels. He went to Australia, China, Egypt, Mexico, France and more. Wherever he went he took pictures or videos to show to the kids back home, and he always tried to bring a trinket home as well.
My mother has silk scarves from Paris and plenty of tourist baubles and pins from his travels. There was a year where he was gone for 9 months, and back then they didn’t have a cell phone he could use to call and check-in.
In 1992 he was working for NATO once again, in radar centres and communication bases. In 1995 he was working in Iqaluit for several months. He was a two-star General in the military at the end of his long career.
In 1999 Ian died of thyroid cancer, most likely a result of the radiation he was exposed to in the radar facilities. He had given his entire life to the military, from the age of 11 he was in cadets, and from then on he was doing what he could for his country.
Ian died in January of 1999, and on February 5th his grandson Christopher Ian was born.
My mother says it’s poetic that when one Ian died, another came into the world. I think it’s tragic that Ian never got to meet my brother, that I never got to meet my grandfather.
My mother takes after her father in many ways. She went to military college, she served in the military, and while my grandfather wanted to be a military pilot, my mother married one.
My mother often talks about serving her country, when she ran as an MP she said as much, and some people laughed.
The kind of patriotism he had is not so common today, it’s either brushed off as crazy nationalism or seen as preachy. We don’t become our parents but they certainly influence us. Now that I know more about him, I can’t help but think of how much of him is in me. His love of
music, his love of math and science, his love of radios and planes, his love of his family, the love of his country.
As Victor Alleslev said to his son, and as his son would tell my mother: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
Written by my daughter Hillary