Grampa McKenzie & the Italian Campaign

A letter to the editor in an October IPF caught my eye. Looked like the Italian Campaign was the latest programming thrust from Veterans Affairs Canada.

My grandfather, Neil McKenzie, was in the Italian campaign, at Ortona. He died in 1977 after a second attempt at a kidney transplant. (I had forgotten the why. My sister remembered.)

We kids were always amazed at the look of Grampa's leg. All we knew then was that he had gotten shot in the war. The shin of his right leg was badly twisted and scarred. My dad has told me that it was oozy and ran for years. But it had cleared up by the time we knew him.

He wore a special boots with a built up sole for the foot on his injured leg. He had also lost one of the middle fingers on one hand (can't remember which.) So there were always lots of jokes about 4-finger discounts and such.

We didn't really realize this then either, but Grampa became a wealthy man. He had a gorgeous piece of property with a stocked fish pond and a big ranch style bungalow on 6th Street just outside Collingwood toward the mountain. He had learned to use dynamite in the war, and eventually put this skill to use in the road construction business when he returned home. As a result there were often dump trucks and front end loaders in the circular drive on 6th Street.

But he sure didn't start out rich. Grampa's story is like that of many young men who went to war to escape the prospect of a bleak future. He grew up on a farm in Osprey Township on top of the mountain, near Dundalk, with 12 brothers and sisters, a blended family after the great flu epidemic took parents from both sides. The farm was a scene of mayhem. As Gramma McKenzie has said, Jim McKenzie was not a good farmer.

Grampa and his brothers Tom and Pat went off to war. Interesting sidenote: Halton Hills folk will be plenty familiar with Pat (Garnet) McKenzie, a well-known Acton school principal. One of the schools still carries his name.

Grampa was 17. Gramma has a wonderful 8 x 10 wedding photograph that shows Grampa in uniform and her looking young and lively (and taller than him) in a short yellow dress. She was a pretty, 18 yr old redhead. My gosh, they look so young.

The only story I have for what happened to Grampa's leg is one Gramma told a few years ago. She said Grampa's unit had stopped over in an apple orchard. They had been told to make a slit trench to lie down in. Never one to do what he was told, Grampa threw his blanket under an apple tree instead.

Suddenly they were fired on by a strafer. Grampa got hit on an initial pass by the low-flying plane. Then he rolled away under the tree. Gramma says he believes if he had been in the slit trench, he wouldn't have been able to roll away, and he would have been killed.

My dad, who was born in 1940, tells this story about when Grampa returned home. Dad was five, and he remembers seeing this strange man at the door, kissing his mother.

I knew my grandfather as temperamental, and a dreamer. But I knew him. On one of his many country drives with me, he pointed out what he thought was the last milk delivery truck. He walked the 6th Street property with me and asked me to tell him where I'd like him to put in a full-size play house. (There was a stream running through the property and I liked a spot in the northwest corner of it by the stream under all the trees.) He told me he wanted me to get my pilot's licence so that I could take him up north to go fishing. My sister and brother and other relatives will have other memories of him. These are some of mine.

circa 2004, LDM, re-posted Nov. 10/07

(In the photo below, Grampa is seated, front row, 6th from left hand side.)