I’m writing an obituary about an Ottawa man who handed Princess Elizabeth a shovel. Later, when she became Queen, he handed her another one.
Sometime between these two visits he grabbed another shovel and this time gave it to President John F. Kennedy while Jackie stood beside him waiting to plant her own tree.
Kennedy threw his back out from tossing a few too many shovel-fulls of dirt into the hole. Maybe he was posturing. Who knows? Maybe he enjoyed the exertion even more than the cameras, keen to stretch out youthful muscles after a day of climbing in and out of limousines, smiling.
The subject of my obituary is Ralph Hayter, an Ottawa horticulturist who tended the gardens at 24 Sussex, Rideau Hall, and several other Ottawa sites. He was one of the keenest instigators behind Ottawa’s Tulip Festival. He was very fond of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, another renowned Ottawa tree planter.
I’m ready to write this man’s story but an important piece of his history is missing. This man, a farm boy from Huntington Quebec circa 1915, was a whiz at growing sky-high walls of wheat, oat, and barely. When he was a young man he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was detailed to camouflage airfields in Eastern Canada, disguising them as wheat fields.
I’ve been on the phone all morning with the Canadian War Museum, The Canadian Aviation & Space Museum, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Library and Archives Canada and other experts.
“Concern may have been expressed, especially during the early stages of the war, that enemy warships – or very long-range aircraft – could conduct hit and run raids on Canada’s shores,” Renald Fortier, a historian at the Aviation Museum emailed me.
“Given such concerns, it would have made sense to make military airfields in Eastern Canada, near Halifax, Nova Scotia, for example, less conspicuous. Coast artillery batteries designed to protect Halifax were presumably camouflaged to some extent as well.”
But like the airfields themselves, some of this history as it pertains to my subject remains hidden, alive mostly in family stories. I want to uncover it and lede with this intriguing part of our history and I won’t quit till I hear back from all these historians who have kindly, generously, put me on hold while they go rifle.
It’s important to give Mr. Hayter his due recognition for this work. I imagine him standing in these impromptu fields, squinting into the sun as the shadow of a wing passed over his head. In his later years, he turned his attention to his backyard vegetable gardens and award-winning produce. He proudly bore the moniker “Tomato Man,” and won gold ribbons at county fairs.