Kenneth Roy McAllister was born March 7, 1926, in the central New Brunswick village of Coal Creek. Even before the 1929 crash it was austere living, a place of dirt roads and ragged clothes. His father Blair worked in the woods; his one-armed mother Sarah raised 14 children and still managed to knead and bake the daily bread. Ken had little school after Grade 4, when the family moved to nearby Chipman, and, at 16 or so, with the Second World War at its height, he joined the army, leaving for Europe at 18. Though he rarely spoke of the war, it seems clear he saw combat. At 19, strapping and sharp, he arrived in The Hague for the Dutch liberation, standing sentinel at schools converted to ration houses. When he witnessed kids clamber into empty ration vats, scraping the bottoms with spoons, he cajoled his fellow soldiers into saving their breakfast scraps.
Soon, Ken noticed a girl clutching her family’s rations; he and Jenny Berman, just 18, exchanged glances, then smiles. Finally, they spoke (English being her best subject). Following a government dictum that the Dutch invite Canadian soldiers into their homes, she asked Ken to meet her family; he brought sweets for the children, cigarettes for her father. Later, he and Jenny took long walks in the woods and in the dunes by the seaside. “That was what young girls and boys will do,” says Jenny. Digging up the bicycles her father buried to save from the Nazis, she and Ken, weaving too near, collided. When her father saw the damage, he gave a knowing look. “You were too close,” she recalls him telling her. “He had to laugh for it,” she says.
Though they spoke of marriage, the affair lasted just a few weeks. Not long after Ken’s return to Canada—he carried a photograph of a bespectacled Jenny—his letters stopped (Ken, who lacked education, disliked writing). He married Yvonne, a smart, caring Acadian with a talent for sewing, and had a daughter, Jean, followed by three more children (David, Irene and Daniel). He worked building homes in Fredericton, and bought a lot by the St. John River. Big, stocky, with hands like shovels—“built like a New Brunswick bulldozer,” says Jean—he could drive a six-inch spike with one blow of the hammer, and repurposed a chicken coop into a cozy home for his family. Later, he maintained the boilers in government buildings. When his daughter Irene found a photo of a girl in glasses amongst his things—“I thought it was a movie star,” she says—Yvonne instantly told her to “put that away,” Irene recalls. “So I knew there was somebody.”
So did Yvonne, who sent Jenny letters with news of Ken and the kids. “I was still thinking of him. And I still had his picture,” says Jenny. “I thought, ‘Now this is the end of my loving story.’ ” By now a nurse, she married an older man who grew jealous of her wartime romance. And so Jenny hid away Ken’s photograph.
It was a losing battle on both sides of the Atlantic. Yvonne’s death from a heart attack in 1986 left Ken shattered. Soon, however, Jenny’s photo, so long concealed, hung in the house. In 1992, Ken, then in his mid-60s, informed Irene he’d hired a detective. Weeks later, she received another call. “He was so excited I couldn’t understand a word,” she says. “I said, ‘Dad, my Gawd, calm down, what’s going on?’ He says, ‘I found her.’ I says, ‘Found who?’ He said, ‘Jenny.’ I said, ‘Oh my Gawd.’ ” In no time, Jenny, whose husband was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s (he died in 1995), was receiving Ken at the airport—a stretch for a man who no longer cared for travel. “We did more than a hug,” says Jenny. “That big sea between us, that was a beach now, we could walk over from one side to the other.” She showed Ken the school where they met and the place where their bikes collided. Over the ensuing years, Jenny spent summers in Fredericton, arriving each spring to see—as she puts it—Ken’s “laughing, naughty eyes.”
Last month, through a contest mounted by a veterans’ organization, Ken won a trip to Holland timed to the Liberation Day ceremonies of early May. He called Jenny in The Hague and asked if she had rye in the house: he was on his way again, almost 55 years to the day they first met. Jean bought her father new shoes, Irene new underwear. With his luggage at the door, he’d tell all who’d listen he’d soon see “my Jenny back” and the places they had known. The day before he was to leave, Ken took ill. An ambulance brought him to hospital, where he died suddenly the following day, within hours of his planned departure. He was 84.