One of the stories in The Coldest December is “Business as Usual” by Phil Yeats. It’s about a man who joins the police force in Halifax. Under normal circumstances, his application would have been rejected due to poor eyesight. However, given the shortage of men because of the First World War, he was accepted. This is his story. Here’s the first few paragraphs.
Business as Usual
“Jenkins,” Morrow, the duty sergeant, called out as I followed two other patrolmen into the Halifax Police Station. “Get over here. Now!”
After finishing school in the spring of 1916, I’d volunteered for the army. I’d been declared unfit for service because of my poor vision and thrown back onto the streets, an outcast as I’d been through my school days. I’d always been excluded from sports and treated as an invalid because I wore spectacles.
Rejection by the army turned me into a different sort of pariah. Everyone saw me as a big, strong lad shirking my responsibility to fight the Hun. It didn’t matter that I squinted at them through thick lenses and protested that I’d attempted to join the army. I was seen as a failure, a weak, passive coward who wouldn’t fight for his country.
That fall, I joined the police force, thinking it was one way to do my patriotic duty and help protect the home front. The police wouldn’t normally accept spectacles-wearing recruits, but they were short of men after the exodus of young constables to the army and navy. They accepted but didn’t welcome me, and I joined patrolmen who were mostly too old for war service. Finally, in the days following the explosion of the French munitions ship SS Mont-Blanc on December sixth, 1917, I became part of the team.
“Yes, sir,” I said as I turned toward the sergeant’s desk.
Sergeant Morrow stared at the duty roster posted on the wall beside him. “The police are no longer needed for rescue duty, and tomorrow is your day of rest. In recognition of the extra hours you’ve put in, I’m also giving you the rest of this day. Report for work at 0800 hours, Friday, when you will return to your normal schedule.”
“Sir, does that mean we are no longer part of the rescue effort?”
“That’s what I said, Jenkins. Friday you return to regular patrolman’s duties.”
After leaving the Duke Street station, I walked to Gottingen Street and headed for the centre of the Richmond district and the house where I rented a room. The explosion that had levelled more than a square mile of Richmond must have destroyed the house, but I hadn’t been back since I left for work on the morning of the sixth.
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