T.W. Paterson: Bob Punnett’s strength most inspiring story

Well, another year about to bite the dust. Where do they go...?

Sorry, folks, I must insist that we heard a ghost train! (Or was it Bob Swanson’s ghost, playing with his whistle?)


Well, another year about to bite the dust. Where do they go…?

In looking back over the past year’s columns, all 103 of them (104 with this one), the first thought that comes to mind is that, in the rush to meet Christmas deadlines, I omitted to credit Sylvia Scott for providing the 1941 Christmas menu and postcard of the Malaspina Hotel used in the Dec. 23 Citizen. My apologies, and thank you, Sylvia!

And, speaking of thank-yous, I wish to express my appreciation to those readers who responded to my appeal, in 2015, for biographies and photos of their family members who served in either of the world wars. I hope that I’ve done your fathers, grandfathers and uncles proud in my newest book, Cowichan Goes To War, 1914-1918.

Several readers were quick to respond, too, to my Halloween column about my personal encounter with (perhaps) the supernatural or paranormal. I told of the Sunday afternoon that I and two friends were bushwhacking up-Island; how all three of us distinctly heard the shrill whistle of a steam engine. This was in logging country behind a locked gate, miles from the highway, on a truck road that originally was a logging railway. Did we really hear a ghost train?

Not according to those who responded with a common theory: that Al, Jennifer and I may well have heard a steam whistle, carried by the wind from Bob Swanson’s famous whistle farm. Who was Bob Swanson and what’s a whistle farm? Simply put, he was the province’s chief boiler inspector for many years and he dabbled on the side in creating variously pitched steam whistles, such as the one that for years signalled shift changes at the Duke Point sawmill. He also came up with the clarion call of diesel locomotives. (He’s a great story but I can’t do him justice today so you’ll have to wait.)

His whistle farm, deep in the woods in the Nanaimo Lake area, was where he experimented. So: Did we actually hear a whistle that day, one carried on the wind from Bob Swanson’s outdoor laboratory?

Good guess, but no cigar, guys. You see, the farm is beyond any hearing from the Fanny Bay area where we were that day — and had long been shut down by the time of our phantom whistle which, my photo log clearly shows, occurred in June 2009.

So, sorry, folks, I must insist that we heard a ghost train! (Or was it Bob Swanson’s ghost, playing with his whistle?)

2016 was a momentous year, of course, as most years tend to be in this ever more difficult world. Locally, we lost the magnificent maple at the entrance to the Island Savings Centre parking lot (in exchange for more hardtop and Martha Stewart landscaping) and, alas, the heritage Quamichan Inn to fire.

On the national scene, Viola Desmond won the lottery for having her portrait on the Canadian $10 note. As I noted in several columns, she was up against stiff competition but, for reasons undisclosed to the general public, Viola Desmond it is. Here’s hoping that other opportunities for naming public institutions after great Canadian women will be utilized.

I paid tribute to my good friend Doris Benjamin who passed away in June and, thanks to his brother, Walt Punnett, I was able to acknowledge one of the bravest and most remarkable men I’ve come across. Bob Punnett of Bowen Island was just 18 and in the prime of health when he was struck down by polio and sentenced to spend the last 10 years of his life in an iron lung. This was cutting-edge technology for the staff of Vancouver General Hospital when he was admitted in 1939. Doctors and nurses earned their own accolades by their devoted attentions to this young man who, in a single day, went from being a strapping logger to being unable to move from his head down, even to breathe unassisted.

It’s Bob Punnett’s unbelievable strength of character that sticks with me. He never stopped smiling, he never lost his spirit or hope. At least, that’s how he presented himself to his nursing staff, family and the occasional visitor such as the Vancouver Province reporter and photographer who made him famous as Bob, the boy in the iron lung. The ‘boy’ with the big smile that he carried to the bitter end, 10 years later.

So, we’re about to enter another year. Sure, we all have our troubles, some of them pretty heavy ones, too. That said, however, maybe when we’re feeling down we should remember Bob Punnett and take strength from his heroic resolve.

Thank you, Citizen readers, and Happy New Year.