Bill McLachlan is probably the best poppy man in Ottawa. It only took a world war and 95 years of living.
He stands in Billings Bridge Shopping Centre on the ground floor — where an escalator spills transit users from upstairs — wearing a dark blue jacket, a perfectly-cocked beret, ten medals and ribbons, a bloom of pins and crests, a thinning moustache, and eyes a little tired, a century being a heavy thing to hold.
He looks, in other words, like an old soldier, unbowed.
The Montgomery Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion says McLachlan brings in more money than anyone else during the poppy campaign, in the range of $8,000 to $10,000 during the 17-day window to Nov. 11.
“Oh, he’s the man,” said Steve Spidell, campaign chair. “He’ll bring in 20 boxes and they’re jammed packed.” (A box is the cardboard container that holds the money and sits in the white tray that hangs around his neck.)
McLachlan will spend roughly six hours a day here, usually standing, and call it quits when his second box is full, slipping out to the Chevy Cobalt for the ride home.
“I just charm them, I guess,” he says, as though selling poppies is hardly a competition for the steak-knife set. “I’m one of these people who always gave back. My thought in the morning is, ‘What can I do that’s good for somebody?’”
He’s done many a thing: a teacher at Philemon Wright High School in Gatineau for 17 years, long stints at mills in Buckingham and Thurso and, wedged in there, earning a university science degree at age 50. And been a father to two daughters.
He is, behold, a natural storyteller.
“I was born on my grandmother’s kitchen table on Nepean Street in 1923,” he says, when asked where he’s from. A woman is now stuffing money into the box and he begins to pin the poppy on her coat, with an expression that seems to be his trademark: “Hello love, just take a deep breath and you won’t feel a thing.”
McLachlan was a radar man during his service (1941-1945) with the air force and has wonderful stories about setting up stations on the Canadian east coast, especially in isolated corners of Newfoundland where there was no electricity, running water or shelter, where food came from a can and the only weather was wind and rain.
But a great thing happened, too. On a side trip to a village in Nova Scotia, he was told to look up the local teacher, then 17 and teaching 10 grades in a one-room school house. “They told me she was pretty.” This was Phyllis Raynard, middle name Hope. From his tray, he pulls out a photo of the pair of them, on their wedding day in 1945.
They were married for 73 years until Phyllis died on May 30. They were at home, getting supper ready — a cooked chicken and potato salad — when Phyllis was struck with a powerful headache.
“My head Bill, my head. I’ve got a hell of a headache, I’ve got to lie down,” he recounts her saying. And shoppers are going by, kids with buds in their ears, parents with eyes glued to phones. It’s noon on a wet, grey Monday, nothing special in the day.
“That didn’t help. I went to get a bag of peas from the freezer and that didn’t help.” He called 911 but it was the beginning of the end, he said.
She was 92.
“She was a very forgiving lady. She was wonderful. I can’t ever imagine being with more of a sweetheart than her.” And his voice is breaking and the eyes are a little redder and even the poppies don’t seem to matter much anymore.
But, of course, he soldiers on. There is another coat to pin a poppy on. There is another $20 going into the box. There is always another Remembrance Day. There is always another war.
“He takes this very seriously,” says Tim Blanchard, the deputy commander of Zone G-5 with the Royal Canadian Legion, and a friend for 10 years. (In fact, he’s at Billings Bridge today for an update and, among other things, to ferry out to McLachlan’s trunk to get more poppies.)
“He’s an old war veteran who has made it, essentially, his life’s mission to ensure that nobody forgets.”
Lots of people want poppies, he says — the legion hands out 20 million across Canada — but lots of people want theirs from Bill McLachlan.
“He’s fantastic.” And he’s real — for the lucky ones, as close to world war as we’ll ever get.
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