Sheets of rain, fittingly, fell from a leaden sky yesterday. On such a mournful morning the wind could only shriek over the battlements of Citadel Hill where a pair of gunners — dressed in the First World War uniforms of the 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalion — discharged a smooth-bore 12-pound cannon precisely a century to the minute after the Mont-Blanc exploded.
From the highest point in the city in 1917, I could look down onto the road where the cars had respectfully pulled over. Lifting my chin I saw, out in the harbour, a ship sounding its horn to honour everyone who died, suffered and came to the aid of others.
Then the sirens and church bells stopped, leaving only the sounds of nature — such as I imagine it was 100 years ago, before the collective moan arose from our devastated city.
It was hard not to feel overwhelmed by these stories of death, injury, sacrifice and lives torn forever asunder. Just as it was nigh impossible not to be reminded of the ephemeral nature of existence. How bad things happen to good people, through no fault of their own. And also how a moment in time changes everything.
Which is why, fighting the gloom Wednesday afternoon, I found myself on the telephone with a man in a town in Massachusetts.
He had a story to tell me — one that is sweet enough that I thought I should pass it on, so you too can hide it in your heart for when the melancholy of life seems too much.
Bob Burns, who is 74, was telling me about his mother, who was born Blanche Kaulbach in the Lunenburg County village of
“Her mother died at a young age,” said Burns, who speaks carefully like the data scientist he once was. “She came to live with her aunt and uncle who made her work like a dog.”
One day Blanche, who was 17, and their eldest son, James, who was wounded in both arms at Vimy Ridge, boarded the Halifax & Southwestern Train in Mahone Bay and headed for Halifax to see James’ fiancee to talk about their upcoming nuptials.
Approaching the Rockingham station, their train came to a sudden halt. The date was Dec. 6, 1917 and if Vince Coleman had not sent his famous telegraph the story might have ended right then and there.
As it was, every window in the train was blown in and James and Blanche spent the next hour patching up the wounded.
Eventually they made their way by foot toward Richmond station, near where James’ fiancee lived.
For three hours they fruitlessly searched for her. I’m not sure if they had given up by the timethey headed for the Wellington Barracks beside Citadel Hill.
All I do know is that living there was a man who had served sideby- side with James in Europe.
Hugo Larsson was born in Newfoundland but grew up in Jordan Falls, N.S. His face, at the age of 20, was full, with broad features and blue-green eyes.
At Vimy Ridge he suffered a leg wound from a German grenade.
But he was well enough to help out at the hospital where Blanche, prefiguring her life ahead as a nurse, worked with the children, a duty that also included tallying up the Explosion dead under the age of five.
“One thing led to another,” says Burns.
Soon they were spending all their free time together. The whirlwind romance
lasted for two weeks before Blanche had to return to Maplewood for Christmas with her extended family and to finish high school.
“They kissed each other goodbye not knowing when they would meet again,” Burns told me.
I seriously doubt that either of them thought the separation would be as long as it was. For a while they wrote back and forth. Then the letters stopped.
Blanche’s life moved along: She worked for a while at the Bridgewater Hotel while she saved some money, then headed for Massachusetts to train as a nurse.
There she met Arnold Burns who had a farm and a bottling business. The couple had two sons, Bob and his brother. Blanche spent 40 years working in the maternity ward at the Anna Jacques Hospital at Newburyport, Mass., where she earned the nickname “the baby lady.”
“She had a long and wonderful life,” Bob says of his mother.
But all lives have ebbs and flows. By the early 1980s Blanche, normally an upbeat, energetic woman, was a widow and retired. For company she looked after a couple of elderly patients in her town. “She was getting kind of depressed,” her son says.
Then, one day a letter via a postmistress in Barrs Corner arrived. It began this way: “Dear Sir or Madame: Would you please help me find a dear friend whom I knew just prior to the end of World War One. Her home was in Maplewood, Lunenburg, County, Nova Scotia. Her name was Blanche Kaulbach.”
The postmistress left it up to Blanche to respond to Hugo Larsson, which she did on Nov. 6, 1983, 66 years after the last time they had seen each other.
She began by complimenting Hugo on his handwriting which “still looks the same as it did then.”
When it came time to sign off Blanche included her phone number “so that you can give me a call and discuss the memories we had together so many years ago.”
I’m just going to cut to the chase now. They
talked and talked. Soon they were writing each other every day.
Hugo, who had been a machinist during his working days and spent 20 years looking after an invalid wife, tried to drive to Newbury for a Christmas visit but had to turn back after getting into an accident.
He had a heart attack, but that didn’t stop them either.
When they finally met on New Years Eve 1984, “they just hugged each other and held hands,” says Burns, who has written a book about their romance (The Reward, available on Amazon.com) The next September, the couple — bride 84, groom 87 — were married in a church in Hugo’s home in Milford, Conn., with 100 or so guests in attendance.
For a honeymoon Bob and his wife took the couple to Nova Scotia, where they visited their birthplaces, took a spin up along the Bay of Fundy and went apple picking in the Annapolis Valley.
The couple were planning to visit Halifax, where it all began. Then they got in in their minds to go see the Cabot Trail instead.
“We said next year we will come back to Halifax,” says Burns. “But there never was a next year.”
After about six months as man and wife Hugo had a heart attack.
Blanche, heartbroken, cried for days and days. Then she had a stroke and finished her days in a rest home. When I said that’s so sad I could hear Burns shaking his head through the phone line.
During their short time together Blanche and Hugo went to nursing homes near where they lived to tell their story. Everywhere they went, Burns said, they would hold hands and kiss each other on the cheek.
“It’s a great story of how people can love each other and not be deterred by events that surround them,” he says.
When they told it, I imagine there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.