Award winner: Searching for Sidney

The following story won the Neville Shanks Memorial Silver Award for Historical Writing, from the B.C.-Yukon Community Newspaper Association in 2006. It was originally published in the Coquitlam Now on Nov. 11, 2005.

Searching for Sidney: Closure for family comes in Holland

Geoff Peterson remembers when he first learned the name of RCAF Flying Officer Sidney Peterson. He was seven and playing in his grandfather’s house. He paused to look up at two black and white photographs on the wall.

“I remember asking my grandpa who these people were,” Peterson says, “and I remember that he explained that they were my dad’s brothers who gave their lives so we could be free.”

Peterson’s father, Roy, would also recount each Remembrance Day how he had looked up to his older brother, Sidney, and that the family never really knew what had happened — aside from the government letter that stated Sidney’s RAF Halifax bomber LV905 was shot down in Holland in May of 1944. Roy had travelled to the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Jonkerbos, in the Dutch city of Nijmegen, when he was 20, to pay his respects to his brother. The Netherlands’ front line town cemetery was where two bodies from Sidney’s seven-man crew were buried, after being moved in 1953 from a local cemetery.

Flying Officer Sidney Peterson. Image courtesy Veterans Affairs Canada.

This was all Peterson, a Coquitlam resident, knew about Sidney — until four years ago.

Peterson’s father was contacted by the daughter of one of the crew members, who in turn put him in contact with a former army sergeant and a website devoted to the crash of the LV905 – detailing not only crew members and witness accounts from the day the Halifax crashed, but outlining the grassroots effort by a local man to spur the powers that be into conducting a salvage operation for the plane and its crew.

The man, Anton van der Plujm, was 16 at the time of the crash. He was walking to work in the early morning, following the LV905’s path as it returned from a bombing raid. The Germans had roped him into clearing the wreckage from the road, which included the rear section of the Halifax; the plane broke in two when it hit a dike beside a creek running through a field. The front came to rest in the marshy field.

“The thing was that the plane crashed and, because of the dike system they have there, it sank,” Peterson says. “Within a day or two days, it was completely submerged.”

The plane’s fuselage may have been out of sight, but it wasn’t out of van der Plujm’s mind. He became a thorn in the side of the municipal council of Hank, insistent that the villagers owed the crew a debt of honour in recovering their remains and giving them a proper burial. A plaque was erected in 2001, but van der Plujm refused to be placated. He wrote a letter to the late Prince Bernhard, the former Dutch prince consort who was also a war hero, and shortly thereafter, a foundation charged with the task of recovering the Halifax LV905 was created.

Permission from Hank council had to be granted before the salvage operation could take place in the Orange Field, which was by then farmland plowed every year. The politicians expressed concerns over cost and whether it was appropriate to disturb the crew’s remains. An international letter-writing campaign began to pressure council members to vote in favour of excavating the Halifax, and with a slim 11-10 majority, the salvage operation was approved last year.

After a year of preparations, Peterson and his father and brother travelled to Hank in September, determined to be there as the machines turned over the first piles of earth.

“The operation meant a lot to the family and especially my dad,” Peterson says, “because my dad looked up to him (Sidney) as a kid … It was so shocking to find out that maybe there was a possibility that the remains of all the crew could be found.

“Closure for my dad is a big thing. All these years of knowing that partial remains may have been found, but not knowing how much or where, has been tough.”

Even before they had left Canadian soil, the Dutch were intent on showing the Petersons their trademark hospitality. When they checked in for their KLM flight, the airline staff had found out the reason behind the family’s trek and bumped them up to first-class seats. Arriving in Amsterdam, Peterson said they grabbed their bags and, even before checking into their hotel, drove straight to the crash site.

“We wanted to go there because it was the day before the dig was to officially open,” he says, “so we wanted to have a moment to ourselves before the crowds got there.”

The family woke up early the next day and travelled to the town of Hank, just outside the Orange Field. The entire town’s population was filing out of their homes and making their way to the crash site.

“We get to Hank, and nothing’s changed in 60 years. It’s an old little village, a beautiful little place,” Peterson says, “and when we pulled in, the difference we saw from the day before was there were hundreds of people on their little bicycles coming out of all the driveways, out of all the houses, and riding this mile and a half to the crash site. “It was a huge deal in their town, and all the people came out to see it.”

Villagers joined the Petersons at the field, where the memorial plaque had been erected. As they were waiting for the speeches to begin, members of a Scottish pipe band that had been competing at a Highland Games a few fields away approached the Petersons to say that Dutch pipers had heard about the dig to take place — and wanted to play in a procession to mark the occasion.

“Three of the pipe bands at the games wanted to get together as one band and walk as they were playing as a memorial to the crew,” he says. After the band played, the mayor of Hank gave a speech and a little ceremony finished, the Petersons were swarmed by Dutch people and the international press.

“There were people there from all sorts of other villages who just wanted to come and talk to us, the family, and thank us for our family’s contribution to their liberation,” he recalls. “They were very thankful. The hospitality the Dutch have for Canadians is amazing.”

While the superstar status he and his family enjoyed that day was incredible, Peterson says he was more overcome by physically being at the crash site.

“It’s kind of overwhelming,” he explains of his thoughts during the ceremony. “For never getting to meet someone like my uncle, and only knowing his photograph, to being a few feet from where he is buried – the place he was breathing for the last time – it was amazing.”

And with every pile of earth dug up and turned over, Peterson says he grew closer and closer to his uncle. A pocket watch made in Canada in 1941 was found among the debris – a requisite device carried by navigators in the day, as the plane’s instruments couldn’t be trusted during bombing raids, as the cabin pressure in elevation would distort the time. The arms of the pocket watch, which had been perfectly preserved in the soil, were frozen at the exact time of the crew’s death.

But the pocket watch wasn’t the only item recovered. Because the plane sank into a bed of clay, it and all the contents had been protected from air and subsequent oxidization. “They were pulling bullets out that were shiny, like brand new,” Peterson says, recalling how he thought he had grabbed a bullet in a mound of earth, but pulled out an entire round of ammunition on a belt.  “The aluminum they were pulling out, it was like new. It was like a time capsule.”

The bodies of the crew, however, didn’t fare as well in the clay. So far, excavators have recovered only bone fragments in different areas. The families still don’t know whose remains have been found, or where or how much. Peterson says they anticipate having to do DNA testing to confirm exactly who the remains belonged to.

“The thing is that my other uncle, Laurie, was shot down in South Africa, and all they knew was that the plane was shot out of the sky and nothing was ever found,” Peterson says. “To find some information about one of my uncles is great, and finding his remains would be even better. We’ll see I guess.”

The Petersons intend to return to the crash site next year when the dig will be completed and all the DNA findings will be received. But for the 35-year-old man from Coquitlam, the experience so far has deepened his already profound respect for those who sacrificed their lives for freedom.

“The trip meant a lot to me, and my brother as well,” he says. “I’d say most people our age don’t really understand the meaning behind Remembrance Day, or sacrifice, or war. It’s tough to blame them, people my age were brought up not knowing any different.

“My dad is the youngest of five in his family, and I’m the youngest of five in my family – so that puts 60 years between what happened and the age I’m at now.

“I don’t think people my age understand what happened, because their families are a bit younger, and most people today don’t have first-hand experience with the war.”

 

Award winner: Amanda’s Rainbow

Amanda’s legacy is a rainbow for sick kids

This story won the Canadian Community Newspaper Association’s gold Moosomin World-Spectator Trophy for best feature writing in 2003. The story was originally published on Page 3 of the Coquitlam Now on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002.

The story of little Amanda Hillstrom from Port Moody has not only made many a skeptic believe in rainbow-coloured angels, it could also help children in pain throughout Canada and the United States.

Amanda was only two-and-a-half years old in 1998 when she was diagnosed with brain stem glioma – a tumor in the brain stem – while vacationing in Palm Springs with her mom, Beverly, and five-month-old brother, Jonathan.

Amanda’s symptoms were difficult to pinpoint, and the cancer went undetected.

“Amanda always let me French braid her hair. I was never good at it, but she’d let me fuddle my way through,” Beverly recalls. “But then, it just hurt too much for her. That, in itself, didn’t ring any alarm bells for me.”

While visiting her parents that February, Beverly noticed Amanda banging her head against the wall. It was when the young toddler screamed out, grabbed her head and vomited that Beverly took her daughter to the Eisenhower Medical Center emergency ward. Doctors performed an MRI scan three hours later, which confirmed Beverly’s worst fears: a mass was located in Amanda’s brain stem.

Transferred by ambulance to Loma Linda Pediatric Hospital and University Medical Center, Beverly tried to balance caring for her son and her extremely ill daughter. As nurses cared for her baby, Beverly stayed with Amanda while she received a CT scan.

“I met with the doctor the next day, and he told us there was a mass in her brain stem – it’s called brain stem glioma,” she says, struggling for composure. “It was so entrenched in her brain stem that it was inoperable. It was even too dangerous to get a biopsy.”

Brain stem glioma is extremely rare in young children – and Amanda’s case was one of the youngest reported at Loma Linda. Doctors told Beverly her daughter had a two per cent chance of survival.

“But I figured, with two per cent, somebody’s got to survive.”

A week later, Amanda began aggressive proton radiation treatments, which aren’t available in Canada. The treatments targeted the brain stem mass precisely, and Amanda was the youngest patient ever to undergo the cutting-edge treatment.

“With Amanda, if I explained what was going on, she dealt with it okay. So I told her that she had a ball in her head that shouldn’t be there, and the doctor would shine his flashlight on it to get rid of it.”

It was during the three months of treatments in California that Beverly began noticing how her daughter learned to cope with the pain. While playing in the games room with her mom, Amanda toddled over to Beverly and said, “Mommy, the ball in my head is green.”

Taken aback at the time, Beverly says she had no idea what Amanda meant. Tracking Amanda’s treatments and moods in a journal, Beverly found her daughter described the ball in her head as five different colours over several weeks. Curious, Beverly took crayons and showed Amanda the five colours she had used to describe the ball in her head: green, orange, yellow, purple and pink. The two-year-old told her mom that the shades were all wrong, helped pick out the correct colours and described how she felt with each of the shades.

Those colours became instrumental in Amanda’s well-being. Beverly figured out that the colours could be used as indicators for Amanda’s level of pain: Green meant she was in the worst pain. Orange meant she was still in pain, but not as bad. Yellow told doctors Amanda was in pain, but getting better. Purple meant she was comfortable with the pain, and pink was the best of all – pain-free.

“The colours to children are unique and very specific,” Beverly explains, adding that doctors and nurses enjoyed using Amanda’s self-developed colour chart to help diagnose her. “We would go to a treatment, and the doctors would always ask her, ‘What colour are you today?'”

Five weeks later, Amanda’s MRI showed the treatments had destroyed 85 per cent of the tumor –and she came back home to Port Moody in May. The treatments were supposed to continue working over the next three months, and Beverly says Amanda was able to shed the steroid-induced weight and regrow the small amount of hair she had lost.

But in August of 1998, Amanda and her brother Jonathan came down with the flu. “Jonathan got better; Amanda didn’t,” her mom says.

Beverly took Amanda to B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, and the doctor told her the tumor was back. After getting a second opinion from Amanda’s doctor in Loma Linda, Beverly resigned herself to palliative care at home – doing as much as she could to keep Amanda comfortable.

“Usually I could distract her from the pain, and that would stop her crying. But I remember this one day, it was so bad I couldn’t distract her. I began crying, and told her I didn’t know what to do. She stopped crying, grabbed my face in her hands and said, ‘I love you, baby.’ That’s what I used to say to her,” she says.

Beverly could help with the pain, but it didn’t help Amanda’s condition. Her paralysis grew, and her breath became laboured.

“On Oct. 28, she passed away at 4:30 a.m., and she was in my arms,” Beverly says quietly, wiping away tears. “Just before she passed away, I asked her if the angels had come, and she said ‘Yes.’ Then I asked her if she wanted to go play with the angels. She said ‘Yes.'”

Images of Amanda’s colours continually came to mind for Beverly, who wanted to write a book about the experience. That’s when she came up with the idea of Amanda’s Rainbow.

Children between the ages of two and 10 often have trouble explaining their pain to parents, doctors and nurses, which makes it difficult for medical professionals to conduct pain management. Beverly’s book explains Amanda’s own colour code of pain, and how parents can encourage their children to explain their chronic pain in the form of a colour.

It may sound far-fetched, but Beverly knew she had hit upon a much-needed program when she asked other children with chronic pain about colours.

“You should see it. When I asked them about their colours, the child’s face lights right up. ‘You know the secret?’

“I asked one girl what colour she had for really bad pain, and she responded right away, ‘Oh, it’s black.’ She said it so quickly, so nonchalantly, like it was obvious.”

Amanda’s Rainbow includes an explanation of the rainbow and a chart for the child to colour in. Beverly includes a lady-bug pin with the book, so children or parents can clip the pin onto the colour they’re feeling that day — letting physicians know how much pain they’re in.

She’s getting the word out about the book, and doctors at B.C. Children’s Hospital, Royal Columbian Hospital, Canuck Place, Ronald McDonald House and Victoria General are waiting for copies of Amanda’s Rainbow. She sent copies down to Loma Linda, where Amanda was in treatment, and the book is slowly making its way down to California and to hospitals across North America.

“There’s been lots of research done with kids and colours, and kids in pain. But the key they’re missing is that the colours are specific to each child,” she explains. “If you give them a colour, they’re supposed to remember it and it doesn’t have as much meaning. I asked one boy if he saw the colours or felt them. He told me they were just there.

“You’re asking your child to share their rainbow with you, and they’re excited to share it with you.”

Beverly is producing the books out of her own pocket, and her mother and three sisters form an assembly line each Sunday — putting together the books, charts and pins so others can create a rainbow. All proceeds go back into producing more books, which will help more children. Any money left over will be donated to pediatric wards of hospitals.

“It’s a terrible thing to lose a child. People who have lost a parent can understand what it’s like to a degree, but it’s still not the same,” she says. “But doing this has helped an awful lot. Amanda’s life was really short, but gosh, she touched a lot of lives.

“My dream is to have an Amanda’s Rainbow chart above every hospital bed for every child.”

Beverly Hillstrom is holding a book launch for Amanda’s Rainbow at the Coquitlam Chapters location at Pinetree Village on Friday, Oct. 11, 2002. Beverly and parents of other children in the book will be on hand at 7:30 p.m. to explain children’s colours and the benefits of charting “rainbows.” For more information about Amanda’s Rainbow, check out the initiative’s website.