By Susan Weisenburger
One never knows what to expect when you sit down with a total stranger and ask a few probing questions. I could never have predicted that day I would catch a glimpse of Canadian Cold War history and a remarkable young lady willing to go and do her part for peace and security in our land. I had no idea what a FCO was when I met Rita Jordan but I was willing to learn. She gave to me an education.
Rita was born in Lac La Biche, AB to Danish immigrants who met one another here in Canada. Although a blacksmith by trade Rita’s father also dabbled in commercial fishing before he settled in as a Fishery and Game officer with the AB government. In this role he would move his family all over the province. They lived in such places as Slave Lake, Canyon Creek, Wabamun, and Medicine Hat. Her father had served in the Danish Navy before coming to Canada then then during WWII he signed up in the Canadian Army without needing to be conscripted. He was wounded overseas. He felt he had given more than enough for all of his family so he was not happy when at 18 Rita announced that she wanted to join the Air Force.
“I wanted to do it and I did it. I was headstrong,” says Rita. She headed east to St. John’s, Quebec for basic training in January 1952. Next she was stationed at #1 Radar and Communications School at the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Station, Clinton, ON for her training as a Fighter Control Operator or Fighter Cop.
“RCAF and USAF together designated and built a large network of long-range radar sites in Canada capable of detecting Soviet bombers. As a Ground-Control Intercept unit, its role was to guide interceptors toward enemy bombers.” This network was called the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. This work was mostly done by women. They would man the RCAF’s Alert Radar Stations and scan the skies for hostile intruders over the Canadian Arctic. Rita was stationed in Lac St. Denis, QC sixty miles north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains. It is one of the oldest Pinetree Line sites in the radar network.
Rita remembers “sitting is a darkened room in front of a radar screen watching for aircraft. How high are they flying? Korean? Russian? Planes coming from the north must have identification within a minute and if we didn’t get it we would send pilots running to their planes. We worked on top of a mountain for 8 hours a day in 3 different shifts. We were hooked up with Ottawa and the US. I personally never found one but did receive an SOS one night with 50 people on board. We were able to get them down safely.” This work was highly secretive. Rita remembers hearing, “Lose lips sink ships”.
Here’s the cool thing! In 1953 the National Film Board of Canada made a documentary of this very site and the important work being done. When I found it on Google I was able to share it with Rita and she was able to see and briefly relive that important contribution she made to national security. You can find the documentary as well at https://www.nfb.ca/film/radar_station/
Now before Rita left for a career in the Air Force she did spend some time with a young man playing hockey for the Medicine Hat Tigers (51′). When a dance was over at midnight Rita knew she had to ask her father’s permission to join a group of friends to go out for coffee. Keith Jordan walked right up to the house behind Rita and asked her father if she could go. Rita’s parents were hockey fans and knew who he was. She had to be home no later than one. Keith did not want to lose connection with this gal. When she went off for training he wrote to Rita’s mother asking for an address. After many letters Rita knew she was in love and had to make a hard decision. At the time a woman could not work as a FCO and be married. She left the force in 54′.
Keith worked in lumber and moved his family all over the province as well. Finally he joined AGT (later became Telus) and accepted his last position here in Spruce Grove before retirement in 86′. Although Rita did some odd jobs for Telus over the years with maps and “cutting Athabasca” she never did work out steady. The couple had a son and a daughter five years apart. Judith lives here in Spruce Grove and is considered Rita’s right arm especially with visual tasks.
Rita loves the trees in this part of the province and she loves to work with her hands doing crochet, embroidery, sewing and quilting. She is an avid reader who built her own library. Now in her late 80’s she sits in the dining room at St. Michael’s and laughs with her friends. “I am very happy here. I don’t mind being alone. I love my TV. I gather at the table with friends – coffee in the morning, afternoon and water in the evening. Everyone comes to our table. Our table is like a magnet with lots of laughs. That’s what it’s all about!”
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