Some Men Dream
Dafoe moved to 5 Strathearn Place in Edinburgh in January 1946, sharing accommodations with the owners, whom he described in a letter to Charlotte: "A lady and her daughter who were at one time wealthy but ruined by the war and, they said, the Labour Government. She is a very motherly soul and treats me like a son. Also present is a relative who is a medical student at the university. The university is 20 minutes' walk away."
His was a conditional release, or sixty-day leave, and if he was not recalled during that period his status became permanent. Dafoe had to put such concerns in the background as he struggled to keep up with a Professor Learmonth at Edinburgh University. "His mental capacity is stupendous," he told Charlotte, "and he makes me feel very small in a very short time. As you know he is one of the leading authorities in the world on sympathetic and vascular surgery. He is always pumping questions at us, setting us problems, and it keeps you going."
On January 30, 1946, he wrote to tell Charlotte that he had a letter from Rogers "most interesting and written in the true Rogersian style. He had considerable difficulty in finally reaching Baghdad with the usual obstructionism one meets....He is well-established and cramming at nights to keep ahead of the students a feat in itself, as I am finding after six years of non-academic work. However, he says his ship is sailing well ahead of any competitors. He is lying a bit low at present, surveying the land, watching the graft, and will probably pounce soon."
On February 14 six years to the day after receiving his commission Dafoe was officially released from the RAMC with the rank of major. Moreover, he had a number of medals to his credit: the 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, Italy Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45, and, of course, the Order of Service to the People, which the Partisans had given him in Tuzla. In addition, he was entitled to wear paratrooper's wings because of his SOE training in Palestine.
A week later, he wrote to Charlotte to acknowledge receipt of the many parcels she was sending. "I have plenty to eat and even have an ex-Yugoslav friend on the black market and can get anything I want," he explained. He added that "an old friend from the CCS lives next door with his wife and kid and on our periods of relaxation we go out together either taking the girl for a walk or to a concert. I go by the name of Uncle Daffy."
The old friend was Bill Gillanders. He and Dafoe saw a lot of each other during this period. "We often talked, seldom argued about politics, and Colin was always a strong advocate of private enterprise and capitalism," Gillanders recalled of the wide-ranging discussions he shared with Dafoe. Both men suffered from amoebic dysentery as a result of serving in Yugoslavia. Gillanders was treated successfully at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Dafoe was not as fortunate, having to battle with complications including a severely abscessed liver for some time.
In May of that year, Dafoe took a position with the Leicester Royal Infirmary, where he worked under a Dr George Sawyers, formerly an RAF surgeon. Sawyers, who was several years younger, proved an engaging companion, so that Dafoe enjoyed his time in Leicester.
Charlotte joined him there in August. It had taken her a year to secure the visa mainly because of the rationing still in effect throughout much of Britain. Charlotte worked locums while her husband continued his studies. They spent a lot of time with Dr Sawyers and Dr Fred Day, whom Dafoe had met sometime in 1945 or 1946 while preparing to write his exams for the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. "Colin was such a constant student," Day recalls, "sitting in the specimen museum, that I used to kid him that I had seen two or three other students group around him on their stools studying him, thinking that he himself was probably a specimen." The two roomed together then in the basement of the YMCA in London. "We used to spend many of our evenings in the City of Westminster pubs to the detriment of our study programmes," he added.
In October 1946, Dafoe sat for his Fellowship exams in Edinburgh. He failed not an uncommon setback among surgeons. He tried again a year later and failed again. It was annoying, but still not unusual. He resumed studying.
Then on November 3, 1947, Charlotte gave birth to their first child, a son, in Leicester. They named him John. When Dafoe returned to Edinburgh to study in March 1948, Charlotte and John followed two months later. In October of that year, shortly after his third attempt at the Fellowship exams, Dafoe decided to return with his family to Canada. Not long after arriving back in Madoc, Dafoe was advised by telegram that he had successfully completed his Fellowship and could now attach the letters "FRCS" after his name. Dafoe hoped such a cachet would open a few doors to him in the medical community and was considerably ruffled to discover that Canadian doctors gave it scant notice.
In the fall of 1948, Dafoe returned to Europe. He had seen an advertisement in a medical journal regarding a British Council Fellowship to study thoracic surgery with the world-renowned Dr Craaford at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Thinking such an undertaking would become "another adventure," he applied and was accepted. He sailed from Halifax, having written to his parents in Florida at the last minute to advise them of his plans.
Almost forty years later, controversy still surrounds Dafoe's sojourn in Sweden. According to one source who knew him well, and who insisted on anonymity given the sometimes draconian nature of the Official Secrets Act, the fellowship came with certain "strings attached."
"Apparently Colin was to be a contact in Sweden for spies and their ilk who came across from Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries," the source volunteered. "He told me he refused to do this or continue to do it and lost his scholarship."
The source of this information is reliable enough that we can accept the story almost without question. It is known, too, that Lindsay Rogers continued with his intelligence activities while in Baghdad. Even the Dafoe family admits that Dafoe no doubt "kept his eyes open" in Stockholm, but he was dedicated most to his surgical studies. He impressed Dr Craaford and his staff with his ability to learn enough Swedish to communicate with the patients and he did not resign. Instead, he completed the four-month term of study before moving on.
The Leicester Royal Infirmary had asked him to rejoin its staff, but Dafoe thought it unfair to ask Charlotte to return to England. When he sought her opinion, she discussed it with family and friends, then cabled: "STRONGLY ADVISE TO TAKE JOB IN LEICESTER STOP BILL DAFOE AGREES STOP LETTER FOLLOWS." Dafoe accepted the position with the Infirmary's Chest Unit, where he worked with a Dr Cruickshank. Typically, he never regretted the decision once it was made. Charlotte, with her mother and nineteen-month-old son John, sailed from Montreal to Liverpool in June 1949. They were met by Dafoe, who had driven down from Leicester in his first car, a brand-new Austin A40.
Dafoe worked at the Leicester Infirmary for almost a year before he and Charlotte began to think of settling permanently in Canada. While in Stockholm, he had pursued an opportunity in Edmonton with a Dr Whitesides who had worked at the Karolinska Institute with Dr Craaford and had written asking him to recommend a thoracic surgeon. Dafoe kept in touch with Whitesides throughout his time in Leicester. When he was accepted for the job, he and Charlotte sailed home by freighter in June 1950.
They planned a short holiday before moving west, but the summer was fraught with difficulties. For one thing, Charlotte was pregnant again. Then, the A40 Dafoe had purchased in Leicester had not yet arrived. Lindsay Rogers, on his way home from Baghdad, decided to visit followed by Dr David Wade, a Welshman Dafoe had met while aboard the troopship destined for Singapore in 1942.
Rogers stayed several weeks, adding to the hectic comings and goings at the house on St Lawrence Street in Madoc. He purchased a used car, which he planned to take across Canada. Dafoe finally collected his A40, and set out for Edmonton, where he connected with Rogers in July or August. Charlotte had remained in Toronto to await the birth of their second child.
At the end of August, Frank Dafoe suffered a stroke in Madoc. Dafoe flew to Toronto and was there two days later when his second son, Eric, was born on September 11, 1950. He went to Madoc immediately afterwards to see his father, who was recovering. With Charlotte, John, and the newborn Eric he returned to Edmonton, where they settled into a small bungalow at 11037 80th Avenue. Lindsay Rogers had by then sailed home to New Zealand. The two men would correspond regularly over the years, but would not meet again for almost a decade.
Dafoe was just settling in again when his father died in Florida on November 3 young John's third birthday. By the time Dafoe's own forty-first birthday rolled around later that month, he had regained his equilibrium in earnest and was quickly establishing himself in the medical community, despite early signs that he and Dr Whitesides were not compatible.
From 1950 to 1969 Dafoe would be associated with the University of Alberta Hospital, the Royal Alexandra, Miseracordia, Edmonton General Hospital, Charles Comsell Hospital (specializing in treatment of Indian and Inuit patients), and the Aberhart Memorial Sanitorium, a tuberculosis centre. This was in addition to a successful private practice. Initially he shared offices in the Teglar Building with Fred Day, who was quickly building a reputation as an orthopaedic surgeon. For the first time m his colourful life, Colin Scott Dafoe appeared to be settling down. On November 6, 1951, Michael Lindsay Dafoe was born in Edmonton.
In 1952 the family of five moved to a spacious home at 11067 82nd Avenue. Later in the year, Dafoe was approached by Dr Colin Andrew Ross, who had been pursuing post-graduate work in thoracic surgery in England and was now in Edmonton in search of a job. He suggested they form a partnership. Dafoe had not considered such an idea until then. He investigated Dr Ross thoroughly and tossed the idea around with Charlotte for some time before committing himself. It proved to be a wise move.
Colin Ross was six years younger than Dafoe, but the two had much in common. Both had a strong adventuring spirit and had seen much of the world. Ross was born in Seaford, England near Brighton but had emigrated to Canada as a boy. His father worked in the dairy industry in Tofield, Alberta. Ross graduated from the University of Alberta's Medical Faculty in 1943 and spent the duration of the war with the 2nd Airborne Battalion, stationed in Shilo, Manitoba, as a captain medical officer.
Immediately after the war, he worked in the Aberhart Memorial Sanitorium performing tubercular and other lung operations. There he attracted the attention of several doctors but grew frustrated as he "tried to do more than they would let him", according to his son.
Like Dafoe, Ross was a rebel and another of "the men that don't fit in" at heart. He enjoyed hunting and fishing, too, and had a keen interest in boxing and canoeing, two of Dafoe's favourite activities. In his spare time he built log cabins and sailboats. And he was an avid parachutist who later initiated the Edmonton Parachute Club, at one time serving as president of the National Parachute Association.
His son, Colin Ross Jr, recalled that as a youngster he sometimes joined Dafoe and his boys at Jackson's Gym in Edmonton, where they did workouts or lifted weights. Dafoe seemed to him "a quiet, somewhat mysterious fellow a bit of a James Bond type." Throughout his life, but perhaps most significantly in the years leading up to his disappearance, Dafoe gave rise consciously or not to a similar reputation among his friends and professional colleagues. A handsome man with an inscrutable nature, he was known for his rugged individualism and unpredictable ways.
The latter may account for his decision to return to the military as a reserve medical officer, although Charlotte says that several friends had persuaded him with accounts of the convivial Mess available. Dafoe, who missed English pubs, still enjoyed social drinking. In October 1951 he had enrolled in the Auxiliary Medical List, Officers' Branch, as a pilot officer with simultaneous promotion to squadron leader (the equivalent of major) with the 4001 Reserve Medical Unit, RCAF, based in Edmonton. Colin Ross was also in uniform with the RCAF.
For someone who had had his fill of base wallahs, military regulations, and the merry-go-round, it seems strange that Dafoe should volunteer; indeed, a flurry of memoranda in his service file indicates that it was not always a satisfying experience.
According to information obtained from documents with the Department of Veterans' Affairs in Ottawa, Dafoe's entitlement to his medals and paratrooper's wings was questioned. As well, there were memoranda between Dafoe's unit in Edmonton and the Chief of the Air Staff, AFHQ in Ottawa, regarding the circumstances in and the services for which he was awarded the Order of Service to the People in Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, he was obliged to undergo annual assessments, which he no doubt viewed as tiresome. Still, some of the remarks contained in the reports were revealing. Dafoe was described as "exceptionally quick in appreciating a situation." It was noted also that he possessed "sufficient self-assurance," and that he "does not back down too easily." One assessing officer added: "He is sociable and friendly, has high interest in his community. Keeps abreast of current events." There followed a comment that was extraordinary in its candour: "This officer's war record speaks for itself and I feel uneasy in assessing him at all !"
Dafoe might well have been heartened, or even amused, had he seen the report.
The extent of his activities while serving in the RCAF is difficult to determine. He is known, for example, to have volunteered to serve as a medical officer on a train carrying cadets to camp at Abbotsford, British Columbia, in July 1952. According to Charlotte, the trip was not very satisfying.
Then, sometime in 1954, Dafoe was sent to Bad Godesberg, West Germany, for six weeks, his assignment ostensibly as a locum while the regular surgeons were on holiday. His caseload was mainly the obstetrical and gynaecological care of officers' wives and other base personnel. It was dull work, relieved only by periodic breaks for sightseeing. Whether he was involved with intelligence work at this time is impossible to determine, although the question remains a tantalizing one. Moreover, it seemed a perfect opportunity to visit Yugoslavia again. That he did not was no surprise to his family at least. "He always said it was a mistake to return to any place where you had great memories," Charlotte recalled. Perhaps he feared that such a visit would prove disappointing, even painfully subdued, after the life-and-death intensity of the original.
This never prevented him from writing to his friends. He kept in touch with Miki, exchanging Christmas greetings or sending him textbooks and articles. He expressed his support of Yugoslavia's position during the difficult period in 1954 when the Trieste Question was being debated. But his contacts with the country remained confined to correspondence, dealing with local emigres and occasionally the diplomatic circuit. Frank Earle, a friend from university, recalled that sometime in the 1950s Dafoe was feted by the Yugoslav Ambassador in Ottawa "an old Partisan friend," according to Earle. Dafoe struck his friend then as still very much a loner and more mysterious than ever, at that.
Dafoe soon tired of the RCAF activities and resigned his commission shortly after the Bad Godesberg assignment. It was apparent that he was withdrawing becoming even more introspective with the years. This, and his unconventional behaviour in general, had an adverse effect on his standing in the established medical community. Some viewed him as a self-centred, arrogant, and intolerant maverick. Colin Ross was similarly dismissed as aggressive, abrasive, argumentative in short, a perfect companion to Colin Dafoe. It was suggested to Dafoe that as a civilian, he had been unable to attain the kind of recognition he knew in Yugoslavia, but was constantly seeking the extreme in an attempt to restore his sense of self-worth.
The rumours were mixed with fact, so much so that it was often impossible to determine one from the other although the fiction usually proved the more alluring. In the end, both served to elevate or undermine "the Dafoe legend."
Among his friends and the few colleagues who stood by him, Dafoe's reputation was secure. In fact, he was very highly regarded. Colin Ross recalled that the field of thoracic surgery was "a difficult and often hungry profession" in the 1950s. "Working with Colin was always exciting and interesting," he said. "No challenge was, in his eyes, too great to overcome and he was a true pioneer in thoracic and cardiac surgery."
Fred Day was equally impressed. "His surgery was a delight to watch and admire," he recalled. Day persuaded Dafoe to assist him in several operations. "My results improved dramatically," he said.
One of Dafoe's closest friends was Dr Solly Paletz, a man who had seen cardiovascular surgery performed at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, where Dr Christiaan Barnard would do the world's first heart transplant in 1967. Later Paletz worked at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He met Dafoe at the University of Alberta Hospital.
"I was amazed by his audacious surgical skill," Paletz recalled. "One could say that his very natural talents made him such an outstanding surgeon."
Paletz recalled two incidents from his association with Dafoe at the Aberhart Memorial Sanitorium. The first was during an operation known as a total pneumonectomy, in which a diseased lung in this case, it was tubercular is removed. While operating, Dafoe discovered that a portion of the lung was attached to the pulmonary artery. It was inevitable that when the lung was stripped from the artery a tear in the blood vessel would occur, endangering the patient.
"With great insouciance, Dafoe snipped the lung loose from the pulmonary artery, placed his left index finger on the tear, so minimizing blood loss, and proceeded efficiently and rapidly to suture the tear, moving his finger minimally sideways, as the closing proceeded. The alternative, leaving a piece of the diseased lung attached to the artery, would surely have led subsequently to an abscess."
The second incident involved a medical colleague who had been treating his own pulmonary tuberculosis. When the man had a massive haemorrage, emergency lung surgery was needed to save his life.
"Apart from the usual trachial intubation, I required a second intubation of a small bronchus leading into the right upper lung," Paletz recalled. "This bronchus branches off at a sharp reverse angle from the right main bronchus, making intubation extremely difficult. Dafoe nonchalantly took the endotrachial tube, bent it into a U-curve, maintained the curve with a slip noose of surgical silk with a long end, slipped one end of the U-tube into the opening of the bronchus, loosened the slip noose and had the endobronchial tube positioned."
Paletz was amazed at Dafoe's skill and audacity. The surgery proceeded with no further complications, and the patient survived in excellent health.
"It is said that great surgeons, apart from desire, are made by constant, repetitive surgery honing their skills. Colin Dafoe was born a great surgeon by the Grace of God, for he had daring, coordination, initiative, aggressiveness, confidence, and immense self-control," Paletz concluded.
Without a doubt, much of Dafoe's skill was a product of his work as a guerrilla surgeon, when improvisation and split-second decisions were the norm. "Certainly, as is common in the medical world, there were surgeons envious of his skills," Paletz added. "This, Colin accepted as a fact of life, and he treated all his colleagues with friendship, courtesy and respect."
Paletz recalled as well that both Dafoe and Colin Ross spent many hours in the research laboratory of the university hospital, transplanting dog lungs in attempts to avoid the rejection phenomenon by using blood transfusions between the animals. This was at a time when immune rejection drugs were not yet available. They were also endeavouring to prevent the loss of innervation to the transplanted lungs in an age when micro-surgery had not yet fully evolved.
Dr John Callaghan, a noted cardiovascular surgeon in Edmonton, recalled that Dafoe and Ross were eager to join the "potentially thrilling" new field of open-heart surgery. Dafoe had been invited to undergo specialized training in the field for two to three years in anticipation of the University of Alberta's proposed new department, but finally declined the offer, as he had had enough of studying abroad and did not want to disrupt his family life again. Eventually, the invitation was given to Callaghan, who went on to become rather successful in his field. There is no evidence that Dafoe ever regretted his decision, but he did attend the Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia from November 1956 to February 1957 to learn a technique for splitting the mitral valve.
In 1959, the Dafoes took an extended holiday, leaving Eric and Michael with friends in Edmonton; John was at boarding school in Victoria, BC. Their own itinerary included a week in Tahiti, several weeks in New Zealand, and, finally, ten days in Hong Kong.
While in Tahiti, Dafoe met an Israeli doctor working with the UN's World Health Organization who begged him to stay. The man was engaged in a survey of tuberculosis, to which he saw Dafoe's skills as ideally suited. Dafoe found the offer tempting, but decided not to accept.
The trip to New Zealand was partly for a joint British Medical Association-New Zealand Medical Association conference in Auckland. Dafoe had been invited by the thoracic-surgery division of the NZMA to speak on the details of an operation he had devised for the correction of pectus excavatum. He also showed a film of the operation.
In New Zealand, Dafoe was also eager to contact Lindsay Rogers whom he had not seen since the summer of 1950. Rogers owned a magnificent dairy farm, and was married by then, as well. His wife, Isobel, had been in her final year of training as a nurse in Dunedin Hospital when Rogers was in his early years there as a house surgeon. Isobel had married someone else but twenty-three years later, she was widowed. Lindsay and Isobel married in May 1957 just as his memoirs were published in New Zealand. He was greatly amused to hear that Dafoe had been buying copies of his book, Guerilla Surgeon, and autographing them for his friends: as Lindsay was not available, he said, it seemed perfectly natural!
Almost from the start of the visit, Rogers tried to persuade Dafoe to settle permanently in New Zealand. The Canadian argued that he wanted no part of the Labour government, which he said was too "socialist" and bureaucratic. Undeterred by his obstinacy, Rogers took Dafoe on a tour of the North and South islands, hoping to change his mind. The reunion was by all accounts a pleasant one, if somewhat short.
From New Zealand, the Dafoes travelled to Hong Kong for a visit with Charlotte's brother, John Small, a career diplomat with the Trade and Commerce section of the Canadian High Commission. Small had served in the Royal Navy during the war where he was active in convoy duty in the North Atlantic. Later he went to Amoche, one of the northernmost beaches assigned to the Normandy landings in 1944. He entered the diplomatic corps shortly after the war's end, posted first to The Hague. (Small subsequently served in Pakistan and was Canada's second ambassador to China prior to a long stint with the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. He retired from public service in 1984 after serving as Canada's ambassador to Malaysia.)
While in Hong Kong, Dafoe let it be known that he would like to join the diplomatic corps and enjoy "the high life." He attended several receptions, including one with the press. During this visit, it seems Dafoe met William Stevenson, then a journalist and later author of A Man Called Intrepid, the best-selling biography of Sir William Stephenson, the Canadian "spymaster." Stevenson considered writing a book based on Dafoe's experiences, but nothing came of the project.
The trip had been good for the Dafoes and they returned to Edmonton fully relaxed and recharged. Sadly, it was not long before Colin Dafoe entered a new phase in his life, one where he was beset by a number of personal trials and tragedies that would affect him profoundly.
The first was one of the most difficult. In June 1962, a letter arrived from Isobel Rogers: Lindsay had been killed in a car accident. Charlotte met her husband in the driveway when he came home for lunch that day. He was devastated as she read the letter to him. "Colin had a feeling in New Zealand that it was the last time he would see Rogers," she recalled. But the shock was absolute.
Some twenty years later Bill Gillanders, who had settled near Lindsay's farm after the war, related the details of his death.
Rogers, he recalled, was departing for New Caledonia not long after having had his gall-bladder removed. "This was an unbelievable thing, as Lindsay didn't believe in being ill," Gillanders reported. "A friend of his operated on him, and of course Lindsay had to get up immediately after the operation and have a bath, which shocked everyone except me. He told me before the operation that he had a premonition that he was going to die. Anyway, he survived the hospital. The last contact I had with him was when he gave me an insurance policy for $100,000 covering him for his airflight from Auckland to New Caledonia."
Rogers had with him his wife and a Mrs Downes, who was eighty-four. "She had been very good to Lindsay before and during the war," Gillanders said, "and Lindsay was showing his appreciation by giving her a holiday in New Caledonia."
He hired a car in Noumea and travelled north, "away into the wilds." Gillanders then narrated what followed:
It appears that a tropical storm was in progress at this time. That there was a series of ferry crossings over rivers was not known to them. These crossings have no warnings and run straight from the road on to the river. About 240 miles north of Noumea it was raining heavily and the river was 14 feet higher than normal Lindsay ran off the ferry edge into the river. His wife said they were washed along head over heels in the car. Her window was open and she slipped through it and swam to the river side, where she was picked up. Both Lindsay and Mrs Downes were drowned. They are both buried in a Melanesian cemetery near where they died. Lindsay died as he lived violently and spectacularly.
The date was June 8, 1962. It could be said that on that day a great part of Colin Dafoe's identity was taken from him. He had lost his best friend, a man with whom he had risked his own life more than a few times and shared more than one "dangerous mission."
Then on February 2, 1963, tragedy struck at home, perhaps altering Dafoe's life for ever. His eldest son, John, then fifteen, asphyxiated himself with the carbon monoxide fumes of the family's Rambler parked and idling in the garage. The suicide was attributed mainly to John's difficulties in school. He had always struggled with his marks, despite hard work, and had to endure his father's displeasure, since he expected much from John as the eldest. According to Michael Dafoe, his father grew more emotional and sensitive as a result of John's death. Curiously, he had predicted it only a week before, though, when he told Charlotte that "something terrible" would happen to John.
The Dafoe family moved to a log house on Saskatchewan Drive in 1964, and settled stoically into a new life. On the surface at least, it seemed that they might be on the right track. Dafoe continued to work hard and was rewarded with a great deal of loyalty and affection from his friends and patients. Indeed, among his patients he was very much tata again.
But hints of something deeply troubling Dafoe were detected by John McNichol, when he and his wife visited the following year. McNichol recalled that his old friend often had to be pried out of pubs, where he fraternized with almost anyone but evidently preferred the company of veterans. This was not unusual, as it was known that Dafoe did not really warm up at any social function until he had had a few drinks. Still, it troubled McNichol and he went on to recall that his friend sat up all night at home, playing the piano and drinking beer. When the McNichols returned to Edmonton in 1966 and collected Dafoe on the way to Dawson Creek and Prince Rupert, he sat in the back of the van and played his harmonica and drank beer. "He was quite good at both," McNichol laughed.
"He had the weirdest way of doing things, was very erratic, and worked like a man possessed," McNichol had observed of Dafoe ever since university in the late 1930s. Little had changed in the intervening years, except that Dafoe now seemed more politically aware. He struck McNichol as well read on a variety of subjects as he recommended books. He volunteered as well that he was deeply troubled by the Soviet Union. "The only thing the Russians were ever afraid of was Patton," he insisted.
Meanwhile, Dafoe had kept up his correspondence with friends in Yugoslavia. Occasionally Miki would write, in addition to his regular Christmas greetings, to request books or instruments he could not obtain on his own.
Miki had left the army shortly after the war ended and resumed his education, studying mining engineering not forestry. He was in Czechoslovakia in 1948 when Yugoslavia's noisy confrontation with the Soviet Union ended with its withdrawal from the Cominform, and wisely sought refuge in his country's embassy in Prague until he could be safely repatriated. He studied in Belgrade and was then sent to a federal agency in Sarajevo. There, he married an attractive and effervescent woman named Hiba. They had two children. In 1963, Miki had started work as a professor at the University of Sarajevo and was on his way to becoming prosperous and highly esteemed as an author in his field.
Only a few of Dafoe's letters to Miki have survived. On June 15, 1965, he wrote to thank him for several items he had sent. "The pictures of Sarajevo make me most envious," he said. "I wish I could give you good news about coming to Yugoslavia but unfortunately I can't. I refuse to go unless I can spend some adequate time, and the most I could get off this summer would be two weeks. I am most sorry to disappoint you again, Miki, but we will get together in the future no matter what happens. Perhaps next year."
Several weeks earlier, Dafoe had heard from Salom Suica, formerly the chief wireless operator with Third Korpus and now secretary of the Federal Nuclear Energy Commission in Belgrade. Dafoe's reply revealed renewed interest in visiting Yugoslavia. On July 12, he wrote to Suica a second time. "I had no idea you could contact General Kosta Nadj and the other friends of mine so easily," he said. Dafoe later wrote to Nadj requesting information he needed for finishing his memoirs.
He kept up the correspondence with Suica and Miki well into 1966. Then, in early June, Suica arrived in Winnipeg to attend a conference. Dafoe flew from Edmonton to meet him. Suica recalled that as they spotted each other in the crowded lobby of the Royal Alexandra Hotel, Dafoe strode over and saluted him with fist to head and the Partisan rallying cry: "Smrt faizmu, sloboda narodu!"
Dafoe joined Suica at a banquet that night. Later, they retired to his suite, where they sat up late and drank rakija. At one point, Dafoe made a startling announcement. He was being harassed by Canadian and American intelligence agencies, he said, and he wanted to go to Vietnam to fight against the Americans. Suica was stunned.
Twenty years later, it is impossible to determine the sincerity of Dafoe's latter remark. Perhaps Suica misunderstood Dafoe, for there is no other evidence that he was even remotely interested in joining the guerrillas in Vietnam although it did surface as an explanation for his disappearance some years later.
As for his being harassed by various intelligence agencies, Dafoe's claim was not as far-fetched. He often told Charlotte that he was being shadowed by the RCMP at least a statement she usually found amusing, while not implausible. For one thing, they had contacted Dafoe in Madoc in 1945, reminding him of the Official Secrets Act as it affected his work with SOE. This was followed by his invitation to the War Office in London, and the report of his activities in Canada. Then there was the episode in Stockholm, when he reportedly acted as a "cut-out," or contact, while pursuing his studies at the Karolinska Institute. It is known that Lindsay Rogers had continued serving with British Intelligence while in Baghdad, and it is not unrealistic to think that at some time Dafoe might have been employed in an undercover role.
Barring any direct involvement, intelligence agencies are notorious for relentlessly pursuing, or failing to relinquish, former operatives. Moreover, Charlotte suspected that his association with a number of Yugoslav emigres might have aroused RCMP interest. One of Dafoe's favourite drinking companions was a Dr Bozo Bulajic, a Yugoslav who (it was said) had sided with the Cetniks during the war before settling permanently in Canada.
Dafoe and Bulajic often saw each other socially, when they reminisced about "the little boys' war" they had seen from opposite sides in Yugoslavia. (In a strange footnote to Dafoe's association with Bulajic, it is worth noting that the Yugoslav was shot and killed by a disgruntled patient in his office in 1971. The murderer was apprehended at the scene.)
Still another explanation was Dafoe's own claim that he was thoroughly "vetted" by the RCMP, FBI, and even the CIA for several years prior to a visit he would make to the United States in 1968 at the invitation of the Pentagon. (More on this subject will follow.)
All of that said, Ian McGregor has added this particularly sane comment: "Later, in Edmonton, [Dafoe] still felt unsafe. He confided that he often kept looking over his shoulder [expecting] something to happen." McGregor suggested it was a not uncommon trait among ex-SOE operatives who spent any time in Yugoslavia, and claims that Dafoe agreed.
Suica returned to Yugoslavia, where he received a letter from Dafoe in July. "I am very glad you enjoyed your trip to Canada," he said. "I certainly hope they treated you well. I presume they would because I suspect they are trying to sell you some uranium. The banquet was particularly interesting to me. I enjoyed the chief speaker, the Minister of Mines, although there was a political flavour in favour of Quebec which you probably didn't appreciate."
Later, Dafoe wrote again to Miki, begging him "not to be discouraged" by his long absence. He sent along a copy of the speech he had given to the Royal Society of Medicine in London in 1945. It was subsequently published in a Yugoslav veterans' newspaper as "Zadivili su svet" "They Amazed the World" with the byline duly translated as "Kolin S Dafo."
Within a short time, books and articles began to fly back and forth between Dafoe and his friends in Yugoslavia. He sent copies of Guerilla Surgeon to several friends. In December 1966, he received a copy of Partisan Hospitals in Yugoslavia 1941-1945, by Dr Djordje Dragic, a monograph adapted from a book entitled The Medical Service under Conditions of Partisan Warfare, published by the Yugoslav Army Press. Meanwhile, Dafoe's journals were still gathering dust.
In a letter to Dragic, Dafoe apologized again for not visiting. He noted that a meeting in Munich in June 1968, under the auspices of the American College of Surgeons and the German Surgical Society, might allow him to make amends. "I fully intend to go there if I am still alive, mainly just to register and to see Munich and Vienna, but the majority of the time I am going to spend in Yugoslavia."
Dafoe added that he had worked out the details already. He would hire a car in Munich or Vienna, then drive through Yugoslavia to Belgrade. "If I am still alive," he qualified. Was the statement rendered ominous only by subsequent events? Or was it yet another premonition?
Certainly the last four years of his life were often described by Dafoe's growing preoccupation with his age. Yet he was still only in his mid-fifties, and by all accounts an active man. As Colin Ross later recalled: "His interests were many, varied, and generally adventurous. He had resumed skiing and had learned to fly an aeroplane at an age when most men have given up such active pursuits....He became an excellent skier in a very short time. [But] as a pilot, he was not always as cautious as he should be. I well remember the day we got lost together, and had to find out where we were by going down and reading the town's name on the grain elevators."
Indeed, something in Dafoe's character continually evokes T E Lawrence to explain his most enduring quality and that which so often confounded his friends. In his preface to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence wrote: "All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did."
The same could be said of Colin Scott Dafoe dog sled doctor, army surgeon, guerrilla surgeon, adventurer-at-large. Even in his late fifties, he remained the rebel.
He would often recite "The Men That Don't Fit In" to Charlotte. She recalled, "I remember discussing the lines, 'It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones who win in the lifelong race,' and we agreed that this was not so. It's the 'brilliant, fitful pacers' who often are the innovative ones, who drag their fellow men up the hill," she added fervently.
But maintaining that brilliant pace took its toll. Evidently, Dafoe worried that he might not be able to go on much longer.
His frame of mind was not helped at this time by tragic news of his youngest brother. On September 25, 1967, Eric Dafoe committed suicide at his home in Riverside, California. Dafoe and Charlotte had visited him only a few weeks earlier and had not realized that anything was wrong. But Eric had subsequently lost his job as a mining engineer, and apparently decided his life was "going downhill."
Indeed, if one were to apply conventional standards of behaviour to Dafoe and his family, one would conclude that they all were afflicted to some degree with "problems." The suicides were but the most telling examples.
At the same time, one of the strongest characteristics found in virtually every member of the Dafoe family is toughness, both mental and physical. In varying degrees, all are adventurers in "the Dafoe mould," accustomed to taking risks and rarely satisfied with the conventional. Charlotte, though a Dafoe by marriage, also adheres to the unspoken code. She is a truly remarkable woman, active in her seventies, bright and perceptive. Like the Dafoe men, she possesses the sense of humour that is so important in maintaining an equilibrium.
Even when Dafoe felt most besieged by difficulties, he managed to keep his sense of humour intact. And there could be humour in his unorthodoxy, as well. In the mid-1960s he purchased a Volkswagen "Bug," claiming he was prompted by "economic reasons." He knew he had evoked the disdain of other surgeons in Edmonton, and frequently complained of having his car's fenders dented by "fat-cat doctors in their Cadillacs" who winged him in one hospital parking lot or another. An excellent driver, Dafoe still enjoyed shutting down the engine and coasting the last few blocks to his house. Moreover, he was very vocal behind the wheel, screaming: "I've got a car full of kids!" at other drivers who narrowly missed colliding with him.
Michael Dafoe recalled that his father was equally outspoken outside a vehicle. He was seldom reluctant to tell a total stranger to "Go to hell!" if he felt he was being conned or was unduly irked. He was just as inclined to tell Charlotte or the kids when they had dragged him somewhere against his will, "It's wonderful just wonderful. Now let's get the hell out of here!"
It is also reassuring to discover that in the last few years of his life Dafoe still behaved with considerable spontaneity. Occasionally it took the form of a grand gesture, like the one in 1968, around the time of the "Prague Spring" in Czechoslovakia. Dafoe had just returned to Edmonton after a hunting trip in British Columbia when, on entering the airport terminal, he discovered that a number of Czech refugees were being detained until suitable accommodations could be found. Dafoe, with several days' growth of beard and still clad in his red-checked hunting jacket, smartly presented himself to the authorities and said, "I'll take two." A young couple who understood no more than a few words in English accompanied Dafoe home. To her credit, Charlotte took it all in her stride when she met the couple for the first time the next morning. She had long since accepted that her husband had a gift for the unexpected.
Fred Day recalled another incident which he felt epitomized Dafoe's character. He and Dafoe had season's tickets to home games of the Edmonton Eskimos. Once, a rival fan sitting behind them spent the entire game "expounding on the lack of virtues, both social and professional, of the Eskimo football players in four-letter words," to quote Day. "Colin sat and did nothing. Then, as we stood up to leave, Colin passed 'our friend' last and dropped him with a short right to the jaw into the row directly below us and calmly proceeded to follow us out. It all happened so fast that I believe that 'our friend' and I were the only two people who knew what occurred. Fast, efficient, and straightforward no fuss, no muss, that was Colin!"
His talent for the direct approach had always enabled him to excel in crisis. It is evident, too, that he was viewed as an expert in guerrilla-warfare tactics as a result of his war experiences. Sometime in April 1968, he attended the John F Kennedy Center for Special Warfare at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at the invitation of the Pentagon. Little is known of this intriguing episode except that he stayed only three days, during which the American officers "picked his brains exhaustively," according to Charlotte. Afterwards they presented him with a small trophy bearing a plaque, which he cherished as a memento of what had been a thoroughly satisfying trip.
It is further suggested that he was invited to train American personnel in Vietnam, but declined. From this, several questions arise, not the least of which is "Why Dafoe?" He was eminently qualified, but so were a great many other surgeons who had served with SOE or, better still, with MASH units in Korea and French units in Indo-China.
Furthermore, even if Dafoe's experiences in Yugoslavia were second to none, some twenty-five years had since elapsed. This, combined with Dafoe's limited knowledge of jungle theatres like Vietnam's, begs a great many questions that cannot yet be answered. We do not know how many other surgeons were present at the time. Nor do we know how he reconciled his visit with his earlier pronouncement to Salom Suica. As a result, the episode hints at something in Dafoe's life that remained hidden to the outside world as subsequent events would perhaps compound.
In the spring of 1969, the Dafoes returned to Tahiti, where they spent three weeks at the Club Med resort. Dafoe seemed to enjoy the idyllic surroundings so much so that he might have struck an observer as remarkably untroubled. He returned to Edmonton a refreshed man, eager to get on with life.
Sadly, his time had all but run out.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.