This past April, I lost a friend. Cecil Law, one of Canada’s great soldier-scientists, passed away at the age of eighty-eight.
I came to know Cec because in the 1950s he worked at the Defence Research Board under Dr. Omond Solandt, the subject of my dissertation. Amazingly, Cec lived about a five minute drive from my apartment and when I contacted him about the project, he became one of my champions. He had enormous respect for Solandt and our many interviews and afternoons spent reminiscing about his career at DRB were not only valuable but memorable. Cec was a great and funny storyteller and warm and kind man, and I’ll cherish the memories I have of those basement chats, going through his files, and listening to his amazing life story.
Cec is worthy of a biography all his own. He was a genius, no question about it, when it came to science and computers. A true polymath who had an incredible capacity for learning, from bagpipes to languages and research on Canada’s distant early warning sites (yes, he was a critical player on the working level on the DEW and Mid Canada Line). And he could be funny as hell.
But he was also a tough son of a bitch. He fought in almost all of the major battles after Normandy until the German surrender. He fought during the liberation of Holland, where he met his future wife Gerry, who was working with the Dutch resistance. While I was focused on his days with DRB, there was no doubt that the Second World War was the defining event of Cec’s life. He did battlefield tours, wrote a great book on the liberation of the concentration camp at Westerbork, and his memories of battle were sharp and terrifying. While I knew him as kind elder statesmen, I’ve heard tale that he could be terrifying to his subordinates if they didn’t have their shit together.
He talked of courage needed to lead terrified men in battle during the retaking of Dunkirk. When his men were scared of going forward at Bradune Platz, but there was no other option, Cec had to threaten to “shoot ’em in the guts” to get them to the next objective. That got them moving! His absolute distaste for General Charles Foulkes’ self-aggrandizing personality and relatively lukewarm performance as his Corps Commander was as fresh now as it was then, though he admitted that Foulkes was a very capable Chief of Staff, “even if he was a rotten son of a bitch.” He’d never forgive Foulkes for lying about an engagement Cec’s unit barely survived against German Panzers, Foulkes claiming that the tanks were never there and thus blaming Cec’s unit for being destroyed by light forces. I can still see the fierceness in Cec’s eyes when he told me, “I saw the damn tanks and took one out myself before they blew up the school I was hiding in! Foulkes was a goddamn liar, covering his own ass for failing us.”
There were annecdotes a plenty. Meeting Sir Henry Tizard, who walked around with gravy stains on his tie. Of surviving a plane crash in the arctic during his days at Fort Churchill, and the hellish trek back to civilization. Of his pride when the Canadian Army outperformed the US Marines during winter warfare exercises, based in part on his own research into cold war fighting. But the funniest annecdote ever was about the escaped monkeys at Suffield Experimental Station, Alberta. SES was a world class field test research facility for chemical, biological and radiological weapons. And, yes, they often used goats and monkeys. But one winter, up in that chilly northern Alberta night, the monkeys escaped! Cec and his supervisors and as many hands and nets as they could muster then spent the next twenty four hours trying to round them up, but one allegedly escaped on a train and made it as far as Winnipeg! All the while, everyone was terrified of Dr. Solandt’s anger at such a colossal screw up. Thankfully, it never made the papers. All monkeys were accounted for. The Cold War was not lost.
Cec became a pioneering teacher in computers and operational research in the 1970s, and was a respected and celebrated professor at Queen’s University in Kingston. He was always busy in retirement, writing projects, doing tours, coaching hockey, giving lectures. He led a full, rich and valuable life and raised a healthy and happy family. And he killed a lot of Nazis and helped keep the Russian’s on ice. Not bad for a kid from Vancouver.
I’ll never forget the time we spent talking of his past. His mind was incredibly sharp, and he loved to have fun at my expense. He’d talk about an OR experiment he’d been running, get into the technical details and then, without skipping a beat, say, “but since you’re just a historian and not a scientists so you can’t understand a damn thing I’m saying. Let’s just say the experiment worked!” He never stopped learning, or stopped trying to help people, even when war wounds and a stroke threatened to take him too early.
So long, Cec. Thank you for your service, your help, and your friendship. They don’t make ’em like you no more.