I am writing about a different kind of hero today. Norman Arthur Falkner. He was born in Saskatoon, Canada in 1894. When he was just 14 years old his father died, this cut short his schooling as he had to get a job to help support his family. One effect of this was that he would no longer be in the local Ice Hockey team, though he still retained his love of skating, competing in both Speed and Figure Skating. In 1916 he enlisted in the Canadian Army and was soon on his way to the war.
He had taken his skates with him when he left Canada. He left them with his grandmother in Watford when he was sent to Flanders. He took part in numerous battles there, and later in France too.
Norman was part of the preliminary to the Battle for Hill 70 near Lens which took place from August 9th 1917. Starting on the 16th of July the Canadian forces mounted large scale attacks to the North West of hill 70. The idea was to get the German troops concentrated away from the proposed main attack. These attacks continued for most of the month. As part of the deception troops were constantly rotated on and off the front line into the reserve trenches. The frequent movement of soldiers reinforcing the perception that there were many more troops involved.
On the 17th of July as Norman’s company was being rotated out of the front line a German shell exploded very close by. Some of the red hot, sharp shrapnel hit him in the right calf. It severed several blood vessels and damaged a lot of the calf muscles. He did not reach the nearest Casualty Clearing Station for two days and by that time the leg had become badly infected. There was no alternative, his right leg was amputated above the knee on the following day.
By the winter of 1917 Norman was in Britain convalescing at Selby Hall which had two large lakes in the grounds. In the cold weather these lakes froze over, so Norman sent for his skates. He was determined to learn to skate on his one good leg. And he did just that. He managed to work out that if he flexed his ankle and knee slightly sideways he would begin to fall in the direction he wanted to turn. Then it was simply a matter of controlling the fall by varying these subtly different sideways flexes! I can not even begin to imagine the number of tumbles he must have taken. And then pick himself back up off the ice. Alone. With one leg missing. Determination, sheer determination.
He was still officially convalescing when he returned to Calgary in Canada. There he began to skate at the local Ice Rink and was asked to demonstrate his skills in the interval of an Ice Hockey match. He was paid $15, which made him the World’s Only (and therefore the first and the best) Professional One-Legged Ice Skater. A Title which still stands.
Once he was discharged in 1919 he returned to Saskatoon. He found it very difficult to find a ‘proper’ job, his disability supposedly counting against him. He did continue skating though and managed to make a living that way. He performed three shows a week through the winter of 1920 and went on to take his skating act on several tours of Canada and, as his fame grew, to parts of the northern USA as well.
So to me Norman Falkner is a true hero. Not because his life changing wounds resulted from some act of bravery or daring, but because of his fierce determination that those wounds would not prevent him from living a full life. That too is brave, just to carry on against the odds. I salute him. Just in case you may be wondering how I came to know about the World’s Only One-Legged Professional Ice Skater he later saved the life of a baby girl just a few hours after her mother died giving birth alone. I’d like her to know his story too.