Brian Henry Reeves-Hall, my wonderful dad, died on 5 March 2013 at 9:53am EST (2:53pm UK time) in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, following nearly 78 years of joy (mostly) since July 14 1935.
Dad’s wish was to donate his body to science, and I am so pleased to say that McMaster University accepted him into their Bequeathal Program. It is an incredible feeling to know that, even now in death, dad is still helping people as he had helped people during his life: He was a life-long donor of blood, plasma and platelets – 121 donations in all. At least in Canada.
Dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer* just on 13 February, less than a month ago, though he thought something was ‘not quite right’ in mid-January. His back became increasingly sore, as if he had rolled onto a plug during one of his install jobs.
*Aside: Today, 6 March it was announced (story HERE) that a study had shown promising results in detecting stomach cancer using a simple breath test
Dad was working as an electronics engineer even when in hospital recently: when I came over in mid-February he asked if we could pop into one of his clients to finish a job! I convinced him that they’d understand if we didn’t.
While I was in Canada, he was transferred back to his home; and I was so glad to be have been there to help. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last: he got weaker and was readmitted to hospital last week.
At the precise time of his passing my boys and I were walking along the footpath through one of Testbourne Manor’s fields just outside Whitchurch, Hampshire, having had a great day rambling out to Hurstbourne Priors for a pub lunch.
By chance, a couple of the photos I was snapping along the way coincided precisely with the moment of his passing. I couldn’t wish for a better place to associate with that time: shinning sun, warm on our backs, beautiful countryside, and a feeling of spring in the air.
We have so many great memories of him (and things built by him around the house and garden!).
Dad apprenticed as a tool & die engineer up in Birmingham, England where he grew up with his older brother Leonard (father himself to two great boys now men, my cousins, Adrian and David). Dad enrolled into the Forces where he served as an aerial rigger, serving in Iraq back in the 1950s.
He emigrated to Canada in the 1960s, met my mum Angela there (also a British emigrant), and then I came along. I remember him spending a lot of time in his workshop, down in the basement – he was forever mucking about with electronics: fixing up some interesting gadget he had found in a surplus shop or even out in the spring cleanups. He built me a huge fold-down table onto which we built, and firmly attached, an HO gauge train set. Fold it away and I had a full playroom to mess up; Fold it down and there was my train set – complete with all kinds of electronic signalling dad had built.
Dad loved building and fixing things. In the 1970s there were a lot of people tossing out their radios and so he picked them up to restore them. Back in their day, radios were large things, encased in wooden cabinets – proper pieces of furniture in their own right. By the 1970s, though, transistor radios had clearly come to dominate through their smaller size, and so people cleared out their living rooms of the big boxes – much like has happened to the (uglier) large CRT style TV sets during the 2000s as flat-screen technology took hold.
Dad would fix up the radios – replacing the broken vacuum tubes with identical replacements, or make transistor substitutes (but encase them to look like vacuum tubes!) – and then he would restore the wooden cabinets that encased them. He has a superb collection in his house; and his wish is that they go to interested collectors, perhaps the Hammond Museum of Radio in Guelph, Ontario if they’re interested.
He also kept an eye out for other historic pieces; picking up and fixing up industrial master/slave clocks and restoring an early example of a back-lit clock made with thermo-setting plastics.
After my parents split up in the early 1980s, dad moved around a fair bit but always staying near to Toronto. I think the recession of the late 80s did his job in and that’s when he became a full-time entrepreneur. He had continued aerial rigging on the side as ‘Antennaman services’ but now was the time to go full-time, and so created HABAR [a collection of letters from his and my initials] and later renamed that to ‘Semaphore Communications’.
He finally earned just enough to afford a down-payment on a house – a small, war-time built house in Cambridge, Ontario – in 1992.
His house is more workshops than anything else – one workshop is in the back with a drill press and grinders; and two workshops are upstairs including a well-stocked electronics bench. He has boxes of parts – this and that found in various surplus shops mainly – for making whatever is needed for a job, or just comes into his mind.
Lately, examples of what came into his mind included a complete signalling system for the (larger scale) LGB train set which I had handed down to my kids; and various gadgets that make all kinds of weird and wonderful sounds.
That reminds me: I must see if he has kept the box he created for me as a kid – it had a whole bunch of dials on it, but just one button, which was labelled ‘don’t press this button’. What kid wouldn’t press that button!? Woe be to you if you did. Only dad knew the secret to turning off the loud siren and screeches the box made as you fumbled with all the dials trying to silence the blasted thing! Great fun.
Dad worked most of his life in health-care related fields, most recently – for the past 30 years – as an entrepreneur creating bespoke staff attack alarm systems for nursing homes and hospitals, including Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. Gosh knows how many nurses have benefited from having his system alert security staff to an attack by a deranged patient.
Years ago, back in my senior high school days, I worked with him on a door entry/exit monitoring system which was trialed in a Toronto hospital: he made all the electronics and I wrote the software which ran on my Apple ][+ computer. For my troubles, I won the IBM award at the Canada-wide Computer Fair, and he got some business! I think that was probably the last time he used software in one of his creations -- he was firmly 'old school' and built equipment from resistors, capacitors, and all those other interesting bits you have to solder together. Rarely did they need 'upgrading' and they definitely didn't need any virus protection!
"I like me too but then I know I'm wonderful"
-- one of dad's sayings whenever I went a bit over the top about how good I was at fixing something
Fiddling with gadgets extended to tweaking his Mac+ (still working!) with an hour-timer so he could bill clients for time he spent using its design programmes. His good friend George Quigley designed the talking 'coffee' circuit board, so he told me, which was on display at the Ontario Science Centre for a number of years (aside: I recall dad taking me there on so many occasions; both of us acted like 'kids in a candy shop' playing with all the kit on offer, forgetting we were learning; years later I would attend the Science School there).
He also loved creating all kinds of lighting systems for each car he ever owned: There was no fog or snow storm which would blind him during his many hours and many miles on the road to customers!
Much as dad loved to hop on a bicycle — I spotted his 1960s Raleigh in his garage, although he had to replace the seat as the original split — he used his car extensively. He made sure each was serviced regularly by Werner’s and kept in top form – they were essential to his business. He wore them out though. One of his cars clocked up 1 million (!) kilometres before he was forced to trade it in: the steering column was close to cracking and it would have been prohibitively expensive to repair it.
Clearly, he didn’t travel a million kilometres just on business: he also travelled by car for pleasure. He loved his adopted country of Canada, and drove from his home in Cambridge, Ontario out to the east coast. He ‘dipped’ his car’s front tires into the Atlantic Ocean. A couple years later, he took the opportunity of driving out to visit me when I was out on the west coast of Canada on a university co-op work-term in Vancouver. That’s when he dipped his car’s front wheels into the Pacific Ocean.
He never seemed to mind driving great distances: When I was studying at the University of Waterloo, just north of Cambridge, in the late 1980s and early 1990s dad would kindly offer to pick me up and drive me over to my mum’s place in Whitby on various weekends (not just for doing the laundry, but that too). It was only years later that it dawned on me that: (a) this was his way of spending time with me even if I occasionally fell asleep and snored loudly in the passenger seat; and (b) it was a massive round-trip for him to do on the Friday and again on the Sunday – he was living in Ajax at the time I think. For crying out loud! (as dad often would say) – that’s over 300km according to Google Maps! Wow! This just typical, though, of the kindhearted things dad did.
When not in his car, especially when I was a young lad, we all went out on our bicycles. As a family we would explore the neighbourhoods in Whitby, Ontario. I was hooked: later as a teenager I wasn’t the kind to hang out on the street – rather I was riding the street on my bicycle for hours on end. Without a doubt, it was those family cycle rides that got me hooked on the joy of cycling that I continue to this day.
My kids were born in 2003 and 2005, shortly after I relocated to England. Dad made regular journeys back to the UK to visit them and us, each time bringing a bag-load of treats (and gadgets!) for us all. Not one to lay idle, he always asked for a to-do list. In the early days it was enough to help us with watching the kids, or perhaps putting them to bath & bed while Katya and I enjoyed a rare night out.
On later visits, he started building things. My workshop is no comparison to his, but he made-do somehow! One time, we needed to replace a fence gate with a larger one. He built the new one completely from scratch, and then used the old one as a base for a play fort which still sits in our garden to this day. We moved house a few years ago and he was called upon to build yet another fence and gate for us! On his last visit to us, in the wet summer of 2012, dad built a set of benches for our garden. The time before that, when time came to cut down a tree at the bottom of our lawn, dad built a bench that straddled its two former trunks, and then topped off other bits with wooden tables so we’d have somewhere to put our wine glasses as we enjoy a bonfire together! There’s memories of dad pretty much anywhere you look around our place now!
The man thrived on challenges; and building things with his own hands. He was a good teacher too: he took the time to involve me – and later my kids – in his projects. At his side, we all learned the importance of being ambidextrous (ie able to use either hand to turn a screwdriver or hammer in a nail); to “just hang on a cotton-pickin’ minute” as he put right something that I’d successfully mucked up; and that Robertson screws were the best darn screws ever invented – and they were Canadian too, eh?
Dad was one for laughing. A lot. Heartily. Embarrassingly so, sometimes! I remember going to the cinema with him, I think to see Airplane!, and boy did he laugh. All kids get embarrassed by their parents at some point, and for me it was in the cinema as a teenager! Mind, I think I was laughing pretty good too, just not as loud as him! (He also had a very particular way of blowing his nose).
For as long as I remember, dad had a passion for recording comedy programs. He has a collection of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes of most episodes of the Goon Show and The Royal Canadian Air Farce (in the days when it was a radio show!), amongst others.
Sure, he had his quirks. Like the fact that he did not like being told by the phone company that he would be charged for tone dialing – “they want how much?” he would say. To this day, his phone still used pulse dial: clickety-clickety-clickity for each digit pressed (as if on a rotary phone). This holding out, of course, made life uneasy for Bell Canada. It cost them money to keep old equipment working for pulse dialing. Dad knew that – and so never could accept why they would dare charge people for the new tone dialing ‘feature’ that was there precisely to make life more efficient for the phone company. Makes sense to me!
Dad insisted on never being upgraded to tone dialing. Bell Canada, so I hear, had to install a special exchange for him and other hold-outs, as the modern computer-based exchanges couldn’t handle pulse dialing. You pick up his phone and you hear some noises as his call is routed to this special exchange, ready to receive each digit’s pulses.
I think I have inherited his stubbornness on matters of principle, and the right-to-protest. It is an interesting quirk of fate that we have settled here in Whitchurch, Hampshire, where the right to protest was won for the UK in the late 1800s by the Salvation Army.
That reminds me, it was the Salvation Army that dad chose as his charity to donate to in his will. On my visit to see him a couple weeks ago, I asked him why the Salvation Army, and he said it was because “sometimes, no matter where you were in the world, they seemed to be the ones always ready to serve you a cup of tea in your toughest times, when there may be no one else around to support you.”
I think it was the Salvation Army who visited him in an army hospital during his service in Iraq after he was nearly killed by a sniper.
Dad had been 20 something, and up a wooden pole installing cabling for the base’s radio station when all of a sudden the top of the pole above his head exploded – a bullet had gone into it, instead of his head. He let go of the pole and let his safety harness guide him down to the ground. He landed hard but he was alive. He reveled in telling the story that the positive in all this was having a very beautiful nurse pull out each of the splinters one-by-one from his chest and then rub healing ointment on it every day.
There’s something nice in knowing that at the end, it was two (lovely and blonde, surely?) nurses who were holding his hands in his hospital bed as he passed away. They had been wiping his head with a cool sponge, soothing his fever that had broken out just the day before. They knew his time to die was fast approaching. They held his hands and said reassuringly to him that everything is alright. That it is okay to let go. They knew, as I do, that he had had a full life. Challenging at times, scary at times, deathly frightening at moments, but full of a good measure of happiness too. A happiness he obtained through kindness and sharing with others: His blood, his skills, his humour, his gentle love.
He sometimes spoke to us of his childhood issues, of feelings of not quite measuring up to his father’s standards. I don’t know the whole story there I’m sure; and in a way that’s okay – I’m a dad myself now, and I know that I want the best for my kids, and I take care to not push them too hard, as he didn’t push me.
I couldn’t have wished for a better dad, or grandpa to my kids. He was a lovely man. A caring man. He was loved. He loved.
He will be missed. Greatly. I love you dad. We all love you.
We miss you.
Printed obituary notices…