LEFT: A detail shot of the supple carves on the back of Alf’s guitar. RIGHT: A close-up of a hairline crack that runs parallel to the strings all the way from the f-hole to the anchor of the trapeze tailpiece. Note the clean,
art-deco-like lines of the adjustable saddle piece.
The latter stages of the war should have meant the worst was over, but the opposite was true: Russian troops had purged the Nazis from their homeland and were marching west, liberating countries in eastern Europe as they went. This led to a frenzied evacuation of prison camps all over Poland, Czechoslovakia, and eastern Germany. About 80,000 prisoners were sent on foot across hundreds of miles in the dead of the coldest winter in decades. Thousands died, some from starvation or exposure, others to friendly fire incidents when Allied planes strafed the columns of men they mistook for retreating German troops. Alf saw friends and comrades die in such a manner.
All this time, Alf kept his guitar slung on his back, covered with some of the inadequate clothes still in his possession. Rations were literally scavenged from fields and farms en route, and it was never enough. As his group reached Gresse, east of Hamburg, their long-awaited deliverance arrived.
“They were on the road, and it was miserable because it was wet and raining,” she says, “but all of a sudden the guards all left, and then they heard that the war had ended. He and this friend went into this small town and took this soldier’s motorcycle. The Americans were coming towards them, and they [the prisoners] were waving at them. They had a white flag. They stopped that first night at a German farmhouse and took a ham [from it]. They stayed in the barn and they weren’t bothered. But those guys were something—they took the ham, but they left cigarettes [as payment]!”
LEFT: The crack in the top of Alf’s guitar widens a bit as it approaches the binding, but it’s not bad for a guitar that survived both a POW camp and “The March” at the end of the war. RIGHT: The binding appears to be separating from the body a bit, but it’s otherwise in remarkably good condition.
Alf recuperated in England and returned home to Canada, where despite his wounded leg he went back to his passion for skiing. He bought a small hotel and became chief ski instructor at a larger resort called Jasper in Quebec. That’s where he met Joan. “I was working in Montreal,” she says. “I went up every Friday.”
Although many things that brought back memories of life in Stalag IX-C were repugnant to Alf throughout the remainder of his life—for instance, he couldn’t stand the smell of boiled cabbage—his guitar stayed with him as a source of joy till the end. He had the neck repaired when he was back home, and he often played for hotel guests, sometimes alone and sometimes sitting in on informal jam sessions with musicians who came up for breaks from New York or Montreal. “It was romantic,” Joan recalls. “I don’t think I appreciated it enough at the time.”
Around 1950, Joan and Alf moved to a more practical life in Long Beach, California, where he became a real-estate appraiser for a bank. Upon retirement, they moved back to snowy climes in the town of Whitefish, Montana—near the Canadian border and more great skiing. Alf continued to love jazz and some hillbilly country, becoming a fan of Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell. He played the guitar until nearly the end of his life. Sometimes it would sit unused for a while, but then, says Joan, “All of a sudden, something would come on the radio or TV or something and he’d go upstairs. He’d play quite often by himself up there. He would rush up there to get it. I used to love when he did that. The guitar was a big part of his life—all of his life.”
Alf’s widow, Joan, whom he met while working as a ski instructor in Quebec.
The two later ran a small hotel where he often jammed with guests.