I won’t ever be able to forget my grandfather, Henry Joseph Borgatti. He shows up every morning when I’m washing the breakfast dishes. I hear his voice as clear as if he were sitting on my kitchen chair. He is laughing. Rising to help me with the dishes. Or lecturing me about things like science or history or poetry. And he cries sometimes. Oh, he certainly cries! Especially when he reads aloud from his elementary school readers. He has kept them all his life. He brings them out probably more than we ever know. And he reads them aloud to all of us. He reads them to our friends. He reads them at dinner when the dishes are taken away. When the old ones ease back in their chairs, walnuts and almonds scattered on their placemats like an arrangements of golden coins. His favorite poem is Longfellow’s, “The Village Blacksmith.” Every single time he reads this he cries his eyes out. He makes love to every word, comma, period, the spaces in between. Even today I can envision the blacksmith–just exactly as I envisioned him as a child. I laugh at myself because Longfellow’s blacksmith is a part of the fabric of my memories like a real person–like a loved one. Like my grandfather. I see him now–a sad and proud man sitting in church listening to his daughter sing like an angel. Wiping away a tear with his rough hand. This wonderful man. This “honest” man who “owes not any man.” Somehow I think the secret of life is hidden in this beautiful poem and my grandfather knew that.
My grandfather, Henry Joseph Borgatti, was born in Welland, Ontario, on July 20, 1922, to Aldimiro Borgatti and Louisa Govoni. He was christened on August 27, 1922, at St. Mary’s Church in Welland.
St. Mary’s had been established in 1913 and was predominantly an Irish parish. It was considered a “basement church” until about 1923 when the upper structure was erected. The Italians took it over by the 1950’s however they were forever grateful for the beautiful stained glass windows that their Irish predecessor’s had installed. Welland was slowly becoming a melting pot of different nationalities. The Italians were often looked down upon and discriminated against during my grandfather’s childhood. He often spoke of incidents that occurred to him personally as a young boy. Because of his exemplary grades, he was sent to an English school (there was also an Italian school) however he was not always accepted by the other children. He was ridiculed and even physically abused for his ethnic heritage. None of this ever stopped him from loving school though. His brothers found him strange for his pursuits. Along with the usual hunting and fishing (and many adventures swimming in the Welland Canal) he spent quite at bit of time at the public library. This Italian boy taught himself mathematical equations, memorized classic English poetry and built a radio from instructions he found in a book. I wish I had taped him telling those idyllic stories. So many nights my sister and I would cuddle up with him in my uncle’s old bedroom. On our way to sleep, he would tell us these stories. No, he wouldn’t tell stories. He would take us to places far away from our own every day lives. Because of my grandfather, I was there when Winston Churchill addressed the British empire and a little classroom in Welland, Ontario, via the radio and intercom system.
We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender.
During the Second World War, my grandfather was with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). His boyhood dream was to soar through the heavens in that modern contraption called an aeroplane. Little Henry’s school books made that quite clear! I imagine he daydreamed quite often while scribbling pictures of RAF fighter planes. Unfortunately he was not able to fly, though. But my goodness, he tried. The story goes that he actually crashed a plane before it was realized he had some vision problems which made his depth perception not up to par for flying. However there was a greater task for my grandfather that lay ahead that was just as integral to the war effort as flying. By 1941, Great Britain was in a desperate position and at that time made an urgent request to the Canadian government to train thousands of officers and airmen to install, service and maintain a new technology known as Radio Direction Finding Equipment (Radar). In mid 1941, classes began, and 2, 135 students attended training sessions at 13 different universities. He trained specifically as a Wireless Mechanic at the Manitoba Technical Institute from October 1, 1943 through March 10, 1944. Upon graduation, he worked with pilots and aircrew and trained them in this new technology. It was only the beginning of a stellar career involving science and technology. He spent most of his life in the electronics laboratory at DuPont as a chemical laboratory technician.
There are letters that remain–somewhere–that my grandfather wrote back to his sweetheart while he was in school and while he was stationed up in Labrador and Newfoundland. Gina Fortuna–who would become my grandmother– was a young American girl he had met back in Welland. She was also the daughter of Italian immigrants. She would come and spend her summers with a cousin who lived near my grandfather in the Plymouth Cordage Company houses. Somehow, fate would have it that they would meet and fall in love. My grandfather, forever a romantic at heart, once fashioned a love letter from the peelings of a white birch tree. He cut out a heart in the center and pasted in a photograph of Gina and wrote that if you look inside his heart she is all you would see. My grandmother still has that card. They were married on December 21, 1944 in the midst of a terrible blizzard in Niagara Falls, New York. My grandfather was forced to go Absent Without Leave (AWOL) to attend his own wedding as the war situation had made it necessary to postpone the wedding two previous times as travel was limited for soldiers and airmen. My grandmother said if it was cancelled one more time she would call off the wedding for it probably could only mean that the wedding was not meant to happen in the first place. But he was not prepared to lose her because of a war. So he conferred with the base chaplain and fled for the United States. Upon returning to the airbase he spent three days in the brig and then was confined to his quarters for a month. He always laughed about it–knowing that the love of his life was worth all the trouble.
Although I don’t know much more about my grandfather’s experiences during the war, I do know that they moulded him into a man who was more of a lover than a fighter. The airbases at Gander and Goose Bay were not major battlegrounds but they were integral to the victory of the allies and vital links in the ferrying of military aircraft to England. And they taught him about the heartbreak of war most of all. He experienced it first hand as the body bags poured into these airbases–bringing Canadian boys, like himself, but whose lives were extinguished, back home to their loved ones and to their final resting places. In the summer of 1945, my grandfather’s division prepared for deployment. He was to be sent to India for combat duty. The war ended that summer and it was never to be. His military career came to a close.
It’s a funny thing, but a few years ago, right after my grandfather’s death, I had a dream about him. We were sitting together at a long wooden table in a tavern type of place. There was quite a bit of drinking and carousing going on around us and music. Old swing music. And it was full of airmen–all of them in World War 2 uniforms. They were on their way to other places. My grandfather was one of them. We sat together away from the crowd for a while and talked. Strangely, he was a young man–exactly how he appeared in pictures of him during the war years. He said things were fine. That soon he would be flying off with the others. They had important missions to complete. Say hello to everyone else. We would meet again. I hated to leave him. I knew he and the others would be gone soon. I could almost hear their planes preparing for flight. But somehow he was calm and exuded confidence and had this sense that victory was at hand. We said goodbye and that was it.
I’ve often wondered if that was actually a dream at all or if he had summoned me to that other world…as he had done all my life. And I wonder if he even knew he was a pilot for all of us and a guide. Sometimes he was lost. Like the little prince in Antoine de St. Exupery’s famous story he certainly made some crash landings but somehow he always found his way home. I often think back to a little adventure he and I had together when I was about five years old. My grandparents had come to visit us in Heidelberg, Germany, where my mom, my dad, my sister and I lived during my dad’s Army days. My grandfather took me for a walk one afternoon. We went out to explore for he was forever curious. Somehow we were lost in the maze that was Patrick Henry Village. He never panicked. We walked and walked until we found our way back. I still can feel his hand in mine. I knew even then that this would be another story. It would be a story he would tell at the dinner table and everyone would laugh. It would be his story and mine. Our story. My grandfather brought me places with his poems and with his stories and he kept me safe and sound. He was a good man; brave and honest and never afraid to laugh or to cry. But most of all he taught me to dream.
Thank you grandpa and Happy Birthday! I will always love you.
My grandfather would be 90 years old on July 2o, 2012. He passed away on November 25, 1999.