(Billy Bishop, author Diana Bishop’s grandfather and Canada’s top scoring ace of the First World War, seated in his Nieuport 17, No. 60. Bishop was officially credited with 72 victories.)
By Diana Bishop
Believe me, there would have had to be a very good reason for me to go rummaging through my father’s underwear drawer — if you ever saw the sorry state of my father’s underwear, it would speak for itself. Believe it or not, though, that drawer was, for many years, where my family kept my grandfather’s impressive breastplate of First World War medals, now considered some of the most valuable on the planet. In a sense, the underwear drawer is where my relationship with my famous grandfather truly began.
Before digging through the armoire, all I knew about Billy Bishop was what my parents had told me because, sadly, my Grandpa Billy had died when he was just 62. I had been three years old at the time, too young to have any memory of him.
My father tried to appease me with statements like “You were the only baby that your grandfather ever held in his arms.” This only caused me to jump to a number of unsettling conclusions: That my grandfather was not fond of babies. That he had never held my father as a baby. Or that my parents were just saying this to make up for the fact that I would never know him. I hoped that the latter was true.
“When Billy came over for lunch, he would often take a nap afterwards in the guest bedroom and wanted you to sleep in your crib next to him,” my mother added.
Dad said Billy had a special name for me: “the Boobit.”
Why the Boobit, you may ask. Well, it just sounded cute, and my family was always giving people silly names.
The way everyone talked about Billy, though, it was clear he was a god in our family, so I figured that even if I couldn’t see him, Grandpa Billy was always around — like a ghost hiding in the house.
The idea of ghosts seemed normal to me as a child. I would walk into a room or wake up in the middle of the night and feel something filling the space around me. Where the air usually felt light, I could stretch my hands out and feel a fullness or density, which I assumed was something or someone passing by from the invisible world. I was sensitive like that, and it didn’t scare me. In fact, I found it comforting to think there was so much going on that we couldn’t see. It seemed rational to me that even if I could not actually see my grandfather, he was there and always would be — an otherworldly presence to remind me who I am and where I came from.
This phenomenon really came into focus when I was 10 years old and in grade five. I remember putting on a pretty dress one day (probably pink because that was my favourite colour). I had wanted to make sure I looked my absolute best that morning.
My father always dashed off to work early, well before I left for school, so I waited for him to leave; then, while my mother was busy cleaning up the dishes downstairs, I snuck back upstairs into Dad’s den. I had been planning this for a while and was virtually buzzing with anticipation as I opened Dad’s armoire and that underwear drawer I had visited so many times without his knowledge.
My right hand rummaged through the mishmash of socks, undershirts, and briefs until I finally felt the breastplate, which I carefully pulled out, holding it flat, and placed in a brown paper bag. I was careful to wrap the paper around the breastplate, and then I tucked the package securely under my arm.
My school was only two blocks away — a good thing under the circumstances. I felt as if I had stolen the family jewels and that, at any moment, someone might come chasing after me. My father had given my brother and me strict orders never to touch this precious item except when he was around, an order which, being kids, we ignored, sneaking our friends up to look at them every chance we got. I don’t remember my father ever saying I couldn’t take them to school, but it was too late at that point to consider the consequences.
Once I got to school, I put the paper bag on top of my desk and kept my hands firmly over it. I couldn’t wait for my name to be called. I knew my classmates would never guess the remarkable treasure that I had brought to show them.
Fame is a funny thing. If you have it in your family, it can rub off on you. You can feel a little bit famous even if you’ve done nothing to earn it. I certainly did that day.
When I was a child, it didn’t seem all that surprising to me that my grandfather’s impressive breastplate of war medals — 15 in all — were kept in my father’s underwear drawer. It never occurred to me to ask my dad why he kept them hidden away. I surmise that, at the time, he thought it was as safe a place as any. Little did he know …
My class already knew something of Billy Bishop, the war hero, as his name had come up in one of our history lessons in the months before. The teacher had asked us to open our books to a particular page, and there, in the top left-hand corner, was a close-up of a dashing pilot in the cockpit of his plane.
The right side of my grandfather’s face was turned slightly toward the camera, a crinkle at the corner of his eye, just as I would have in the corner of my eyes when I got a little older. The photo was in black and white, but from the brightness and intensity in those eyes, you knew they were a brilliant blue.
Under the picture was the caption — World War I Flying Ace, Billy Bishop! It felt as if my heart leapt out of my chest. I turned to my closest classmate and whispered loudly, “That’s Billy Bishop, my grandfather. MY grandfather!”
The teacher had pointed out the picture to the class and mentioned that I was his granddaughter. It was so unexpected that I just beamed. That’s when I decided that I wouldn’t keep my grandfather’s medals hidden the way my father did, and had taken the risk of sneaking them out of their hiding place and carting them off to school as the highlight of my history project.
When I stood before my class and pulled out my unique show and tell, my classmates did not disappoint, especially the boys. Their eyes opened wide as I laid out Billy Bishop’s legacy — a tapestry of different medals — some shiny, some dull, some silver, gold, and bronze. Each one was attached to a colourful ribbon and arranged one slightly over top of the next in a long, neat row.
I had painstakingly memorized them so that I could confidently name some of them: the Distinguished Service Order; the Military Cross; the Distinguished Flying Cross; the Croix de Guerre; the Legion of Honour; and the most coveted of all, the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for valour in the face of the enemy. That one was first on the breastplate, standing out in its elegant simplicity — a dark bronze cross crafted from metal harvested from guns from the Crimean War, hanging from a richly ribbed maroon ribbon.
Emboldened by my powerful prop, I began to tell my class about my Grandfather Billy. I had reread my history book the night before to make sure that I got everything right, but having listened to my family talk about him so often, I knew all the salient points anyway.
“My grandfather got these for his courage and because he shot down 72 planes in the First World War,” I began. “My grandfather was awarded the top medal for bravery.” I pointed out the VC on the breastplate. I took a breath and carried on. “It isn’t as shiny as the others, but it is very special. Very few people in the war ever got one.”
Ploughing on, I said, “The King of England presented it to my grandfather for attacking a German aerodrome and shooting down a bunch of enemy planes. Nobody had ever done that before!”
Once I had finished, my classmates were eager to see the war medals up close. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to have them stand around me as they traced their fingertips over each of them, as I had done so many times, savouring every indentation as if trying to feel Billy’s presence.
When the questions started, I was ready.
“Who was Billy’s archrival?”
“The Red Baron!” I exclaimed enthusiastically, as I knew my class had probably heard about the German ace — I was hoping nobody would ask me to pronounce his real name, Manfred Von Richthofen, though. “He was the top-scoring pilot of World War One, who shot down 80 planes.”
“Did your grandfather ever fight the Red Baron?” another of my classmates asked.
“Yes, but they were both such good fighters that neither was able to shoot the other down,” I replied. (This is what I believed to be true from our family lore. Billy had penned in his autobiography, Winged Warfare, that he had once encountered the Red Baron in a dogfight; however, some historians have questioned the encounter, and there is no corroborating record of it.)
A few years later, when kids would ask me this same question, I was able to add, “My grandfather was like Snoopy,” knowing everyone was by then familiar with Charles Shultz’s Peanuts comic strip that portrayed Snoopy the dog as a First World War pilot, adorned with goggles and a white scarf and taking on the German flying ace from atop his doghouse. Except that, I pointed out, my grandfather didn’t like to wear goggles; he insisted he could see better without them.
The last question a classmate asked me that day was “Did you know your grandfather? What was he like?”
Of course, I had to tell them that I didn’t know him, but it left so much unsaid. How could I tell them that Billy Bishop was all around me? That I considered him my own personal superhero, one of the good guys who, I believed, watched over me — not to mention dashing and handsome like a movie star (Canadian writer Pierre Berton once said that Billy Bishop had the face of Paul Newman and the body of James Cagney).
I delighted in poring over our family photographs of Billy, most of which were kept in a couple of worn albums — the old-fashioned ones with the black pages in which black-and-white pictures were held in place by those maddening little corner flaps. We had originals of the official war photos of my grandfather that are now part of the public domain — Billy posing in the cockpit of his First World War biplane, aiming his Lewis gun into the heavens. But the albums also contained Billy the toddler (or “Willie” as they called him then), dressed in a sailor’s outfit of the kind that many parents forced their kids to wear in those days; and later, the elegant man dressed in the latest tailored suit from Savile Row in London, playing polo with dignitaries and visiting Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street. I followed Billy’s life in these pictures. They have such liveliness about them that you almost feel he might suddenly wink at you from the photo.
Billy’s legend was central to our family’s life. Stories about him were the enthralling highlight of most gatherings. So many stories, told so often as to become lore, and I cherished them.
One memorable war story in my father’s arsenal was about the bullet that grazed his father’s temple as he was up shooting at the Germans. As a souvenir of this nearly fatal shot, Billy had kept the windshield of the plane with the bullet hole in it, and Dad displayed it rather proudly in his den. (I impressed my friends by telling them that if the bullet had strayed an inch to the right, I would not be here to tell the tale.)
Frankly, I was still too young to appreciate my grandfather’s war exploits and the endless stream of battles that had made him a legend. Instead, I preferred hearing the entertaining anecdotes about a man who always went out of his way to inject a little more fun into everyone’s lives.
My dad was the family chronicler of his father’s life. He had written Billy’s biography, a bestseller entitled The Courage of the Early Morning, named for my grandfather’s trademark habit of going out to face the enemy alone at first light. While the book had primarily focused on the drama in the air, there were also the stories about Billy the family man, the bon vivant, and the prankster, and my dad would regale us with these often. The tales about Billy kept him alive for all of us.
One of my favourite yarns was about the time Billy hosted a dinner party for a large table of well-heeled guests where everything was served backwards. The dinner started with coffee, then dessert, and so on, finishing with cocktails. Even the servers came into the room backwards. I always thought it would be fun to try that myself.
My grandfather was also very fond of dogs. Dad told me Billy liked Chow Chows — those fluffy Chinese dogs that look like lions — so once, during another dinner party, he placed two of them as a centrepiece in the middle of the table.
“How did he ever get them to stay there?” I asked when I heard this story for the first time.
“He just had a way with them,” was the reply I got.
I needed no further convincing that my grandfather had been no ordinary human being when my Granny Bishop, Billy’s widow, told me why Billy never wore a watch. He couldn’t, she said, because whenever he did, within a short period of time the hands would start going backwards, speed up, and the watch would stop. Some believe it happens to people who have a strong magnetic field or electric current around them.
It was also my grandmother who described Billy to me as a flame that blazed so strongly that it sucked every bit of oxygen out of the room, and while I was never exactly sure what she meant by that, it also seemed an appropriate description of my father. When Dad was in the room, it was difficult to focus on anything or anyone else. He was constantly on, feeling a need to perform, whether it was before an audience of one or of many.
I sometimes imagined when I entered a room that Billy might have been there, and I had just missed him. Once or twice I even tried to see if I could contact his spirit. The Ouija board seemed a good way to give that a try. I gingerly placed my fingertips on the heart-shaped piece of wood used to communicate with the spirits and asked the board the obvious question.
“Is my grandfather Billy Bishop here?”
On the top of the Ouija board are two rows set in a semicircle that contain the letters of the alphabet. This allows anyone on the other side to spell out a message. But the words “yes” and “no” also appear on the top corners.
Just in case he might not have heard me the first time, I said, “Billy, it’s me, your granddaughter, Diana … the Boobit. Are you there?”
My young and impressionable self would have taken any movement toward “yes” as a clear sign of his intent to contact me. That’s when my hands started to tingle. Or maybe I just imagined it.
I waited … Nothing.
And so I made a trip back to my father’s underwear drawer to sneak another look at my grandfather’s medals, an activity that always made me feel close to him. They were heavy in my small hands. They felt powerful, important.
I did get the medals back home safe and sound the day I took them to school — back into the underwear drawer. (A few years later, believing that his father’s medals belonged to all Canadians, my father had the good sense to donate them to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, where they are on display. I am told they are insured for several million dollars.)
My father kept his own medals — a more modest collection, to be sure — in a desk drawer in his den. But he never talked with us, at least not when I was a child, about his own war experiences. He talked only of Billy’s achievements, which were recounted almost like fairy tales, stories about our family’s shining first knight of the air.
Thankfully, my father had been at work all day and hadn’t noticed Billy’s medals were missing. I likely would have gotten into some serious trouble if he had, but it would have been worth it.
From that day forward Billy Bishop became a big part of my identity. I would hear the kids at school whisper when I passed in the hall — “Do you know who her grandfather was? Billy Bishop, the First World War flying ace!” I saw how they looked at me afterwards. I felt special, but also as if something more would always be expected of me. I stood a little taller and straighter, hopeful that Billy hovered nearby, watching over all of us — but especially over me. I needed a superhero, someone to make me feel proud, and within whose protective aura I could feel safe.