Friday, June 4, 2010

A Bob Harrison Story

- written by my father-in-law

Bob on JAP Motorbike, Speedway, UK

I first met Bob in 1952. At that time, I belonged to the Victoria Motorcycle Club and there was a great deal of talk about an Englishman named Harrison who had recently arrived and gone to the Grouse Mountain hill climb, on the back of Al Bosher’s brand new A.J.S. twin motorcycle. Hardly anyone knew of his racing experience which included Speedway, grass track and road racing, solo and sidecar. He also had the reputation as the ‘man to beat’.

Someone said to Bob, “I hear you are a hot shot rider, so how is it you aren’t riding?”. “Don’t have a bike” he replied. Al said “why not use the Ajay?”. Bob decided to have a go, so off came the headlight and fenders and whatever else was needed. He took first place against the best of Canadian and American competitors. He later told me there was a lot of loose material on the road and that was his forte.

At that time, Bob and his delightful wife June were living in a small cottage in Cordova Bay (Victoria). We had basically met when I asked Bob if he could tune up my Ajay 500 single motorbike. From then on, their little cottage in Cordova Bay became the source of many wonderful parties. We became lifelong friends.

Bob’s father, plus his three brothers, were all Squadron leaders in the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.), so it is not surprising that Bob followed their lead, and through the war was in Air Maintenance. He wanted to be a pilot but an accident with a screwdriver falling off a motor, left him with sight in one eye. Later during the war, a Vancouver Island doctor connected with the R.A.F. decreed a pilot could fly just as well with one eye, as with two. This was internationally accepted which enabled Bob to become a pilot after coming to Canada. During Bob’s last day in the R.A.F., he packed his uniform and gear which had to be turned in, and tied them on the gas tank of his Ariel motorcycle. He put the release papers, which needed to be officially signed, in his jacket and drove off for London. In the stop -and-go traffic he stalled the bike and upon kicking it over there was a backfire, up went the bike in flames. Someone happened to come by with an extinguisher and put the fire out, unfortunately the uniform did not make it. The man in stores took one look at the blackened and singed clothing and said “what’s this? Sit down over here and we will deal with this later”. It wasn’t long before an important looking officer walked by. Bob approached him and said “Excuse me sir, could you please sign my release papers?”. “Of course“, he replied. With that, Bob was out of the R.A.F.

Bob on a 1949 BSA Gold Star at
Abbotsford motorcycle races

Bob arrived in Canada with his first class engineer’s papers, and within two weeks he found a job with the Government Survey Department. Bob was one of the last men to be hired within this department and eventually, due to government cut-backs, was the first to be laid off from his job. He took on a new job with the B.C. Airlines maintaining their aircraft and after a period of time, the government offered him a job of looking after their Beaver aircraft at Charlie Lake.

At one time, Bob had quite a scare at Charlie Lake where he shared a cabin with another fellow nicknamed ‘Walrus’. Walrus had apparently run out of needed medication which resulted in a temper flare and caused him to lose control. He started screaming at Bob and then physically charged at him like a mad bull. Bob managed to deflect the attack, gave Walrus a push which caused him to fall and hit his head on a bedpost, which stunned him. Bob went for help and when they arrived to check on Walrus, he had put on all his clothing plus Bob’s clothes, which made it difficult for him to move. They tied him up until his medication was flown in. Walrus was okay after his medication. One of Bob’s favourite expressions was “I hear he went mad so they shot him“, maybe Walrus was the inspiration behind that expression.

In 1954 Bob took a job with B.C. Airlines at Alert Bay, and while there he purchased an old double-ender fishing boat. He named the boat ‘Sunava‘. He asked me if I would go up and help him bring it back down to Sidney. Fortunately, it turned out to be a good seafaring boat but the old four cylinder Gray marine had seen better days. We should have checked the weather before we left but I believe Bob had a deadline and would have left anyway. We couldn’t understand why there were no other boats out and when we reached the Johnstone Straits, there was one hell of a gale blowing—at least fifty knots with a six knot tide running against it. The ocean spray was blowing off the top of the waves, making it difficult to see the horizon. The boat was pounding hard when the engine stopped. The charging system was not working so there was not much life left in the battery. It was quite a serious situation as we were blowing towards vertical rock cliffs and it was far too deep to drop anchor. Bob tried the starter twice but it would hardly turn the motor over. He dove up forward under the dashboard and found a wire which had come loose. The battery had one shot left and the old motor fired up. We passed through the narrow channel to Comox harbour that evening, found a pub, put down a few beers and talked about our close call. I complimented Bob on the great job he did saving our necks, but if he enjoyed a compliment, he never admitted it. He did tell me he had never experienced a storm like that before, nor did he ever wish to again.

Bob repaired the charging system and the next morning I heard the engine come to life. There was no way I was getting out of my bunk as I was totally fried from the night before. I was just drifting off to sleep when there was a large ‘thump’ and Sunava rolled onto her side, propelling me out of my bunk! A frantic voice from the Captain said “quick, jump overboard and push us off!”.

I jumped over the side but it was hopeless, the tide was going down, the water was freezing, and I was in my undershorts. I climbed aboard to survey the situation. There was a large stump about 12 feet off the bow. Bob swore that was the way we came in the night before. While we were discussing this, a police car stopped on the road approximately 50 feet away. “What are you guys doing there?” he asked, I told him he should talk to the Captain about it. He asked if we needed help. I thanked him and said I was sure we would be alright. By this time, the Sunava was on her side, balanced on the edge of a 15 ft drop-off. I had never seen the tide recede so fast.

A fishing boat came through the channel and stopped, the Captain asked what we were doing there. The Captain told us we could not get the boat off until at least 10 o’clock that evening when the tide would be right. He very kindly offered to help us. We ventured off to the town where I bought a bottle of rum, just in case I had to go overboard again!

The three of us met in the pub around 7 p.m. that evening and we told the fisherman about our experience the day before. His reply was, “so you were the idiots that were caught in that storm, you were lucky to make it through”. He told us we were spotted by an aircraft and a report was issued, as they were concerned for our safety. The fisherman said “now we have to make sure you don’t run into that tree stump!”.

By ten o’clock that evening, we were ready to give it a try. The rum was gone but we had started on our ample supply of beer. Sunava had righted herself but the stern was till slightly aground. Bob and the fisherman started the motor and stayed forward. With the motor running and with me pushing, we came off quite easily. The next thing I knew there was hysterical laughter and Bob yelled “abandon ship, we are going down!”. I looked in the cabin door and the water was over the floorboards. The driveshaft coupling was filling the cabin with spray, which stalled the motor. I almost passed out trying to blow up an air mattress, I then took an oar to paddle us astern towards land. I was making some headway when the idiots got the motor started, then headed out again. This happened twice. I was ready to swim to shore but the second time the motor stalled, we were too far out. I started pumping the water out and we returned our fisherman friend to his boat. Fortunately, Sunava was undamaged and the water had come in when she was on her side.

The boat gave many years of pleasure to the Harrison family and their friends. Bob loved this story and often reminded me of our adventure. One day, Bob and June took a dear old soul for a ride in the Sunava and she commented on the lovely name they chose. She pronounced it 'Sonaava'.

Bob and June with family

The greatest good fortune Bob had bestowed upon him was his wife June. She kept his books, put up with his ranting and ravings when he was mad, and supported him to the hilt all those years. I was a little hazy about some of the steps Bob had taken during his life, so I asked June to bring me up to date. The first word June mentioned was “gentleman”. Those who knew Bob would nod their heads in approval.

Bob had many fine qualities, He was an 'inventor'- he had many great ideas. He built them and they really worked. 'fishing lodge owner' - he started from scratch and built a highly successful fishing lodge - accessible by boat and float plane. 'Fisherman' - I believe the fish wanted to be caught by him! 'Aircraft Engineer' - he worked on and rebuilt Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancaster’s, Fairey's, DeHavilland's and many others. In Canada, Bob worked for Government Air Survey's and Mapping Branch, Sylvester Air, B.C. Air Lines, Fairey Aviation and Flying Firemen. He converted the Martin Mars click here to view Wikipedia website on the Mars aircraft) and Canso flying boats into water-bombers. I remember he had great faith in fighting fires with aircraft. He told me that during the early 1950’s he had a chance to purchase some Lancaster’s for a reasonable price, and that his intention was to convert them to water-bombers.

One of Bob’s great loves was gardening. He was always exploring unusual gardening techniques and was very successful. His tomatoes and peaches were the finest I have ever tasted.

A couple of days after Bob passed away, I received a call from a young motorcyclist who respected Bob greatly. I thought he got it right by saying, “what a man, what a rider, and you know….he never got old”.

We loved him.

Addition to Bob’s story, by Michelle (me)

This is a wonderful story written by my father-in-law who wanted to pay tribute to his dear friend Bob. Though I did not know Bob very well, he was a close friend to my husband’s family. He was a dearly loved and respected man by his family and all his friends. This past weekend my husband and I visited Bob’s wife, June, and their daughter Joanne, and we heard a few wonderful and funny ‘Bob’ stories. One could write a book of his accomplishments and many adventures, he was a man who truly experienced life to the fullest. We had many good laughs as June spoke of her dear husband and family, our four hours together seemed like only minutes. Hopefully, one day, someone will take the time to write in more length and detail the stories of Bob and his life.

First and foremost, Bob was a true family man. He and his wife June were blessed with four children and many grandchildren (I lost count - my apologies!). June asked that I write how much he loved children and how they adored him - especially his own children and grandchildren. Bob loved to invent and tell stories, he was a story-teller and loved to captivate his children with mystical sea-faring characters. When he and his family visited Cabbage Island (a marine park in B.C.’s Gulf Islands), Bob invented the ‘Lily Cabbage’ adventure stories. He wove adventurous stories around a sea-faring woman with wet, green seaweed for hair. The children must have been totally captivated by Bob’s adventure tales (I wish I could have been there to hear them as well!). Through his stories, Bob subtly taught his children about manners. To this day, the ‘Lily Cabbage’ stories continue in the Harrison family and are forever etched in their minds. The grandchildren called their grandad 'Grumpy', which originated when one of the young children had trouble pronouncing 'Grandpa' which sounded out as 'Grumpy' - the name forever stayed with Bob.

Story time with 'Grumpy'

Grandchildren watching fish under the dock at fishing lodge

I laughed when June told me how their children had a tough time getting out of bed on school mornings (like the rest of us!) but when Bob would wake up at 3:00 AM to go fishing and ask the children “who wants to come fishing?”, all the children would eagerly jump out of bed and prepare themselves to join him. Bob’s children learned to fish at a very young age and the experience profoundly influenced their lives. Not only did Bob teach them about fishing and boating but he also let them fly his airplane - when they were children! Of course, he was with them in the airplane and would at times pretend to be asleep while they flew!

Bob fishing at Torquart Bay

As mentioned earlier by my father-in-law, Bob was an inventor and a master with his inventions, he was a craftsman, fishing lodge owner, a fisherman, aircraft engineer, a gardener, a husband, father, grandfather and friend to many. He was also a poet and a master at it too. Bob's wife June shared one of his poems with us, it relates to a true event which occurred at the Flying Club hangar in Victoria many years ago - a rather brave friend of the Club decided to turn the ignition switch on one of the aircraft (Cessna 152, which was due for an inspection at that time). Bob's poem tells the story of what transpired! Quite funny. Click here to view Bob's poem "Albert's First and Only Solo Flight".

Here are a few pictures of Bob at work and play.

Newspaper article - Bob fishing with Rhys Davis

Newspaper article with Bob - he invented fibre-glass flooring

Newspaper article of Victoria Flying Services' mechanic (Bob)
assisting a turned over aircraft at Patricia Bay - CLICK PHOTO TO SEE FULL VIEW

Bob's famous "Harrison Tripper"

Bob - having fun!

June and Bob

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...