My Dear Children:
November 11, Armistice Day for my grandfather and Remembrance Day for my grandmother were days we did indeed notice when I was younger. Back in the 1950’s when I was a young boy, traffic across the city of Toronto would stop. Not move an inch. No horns would honk, no curses were thrown or fists waved but they’d stop and remember. The city paused, people stopped walking, stores went silent, and all listened to the ringing bells. In my first memory of this, I remember my restless impatience, of asking “Why?” And being told, quite clearly, to “Shush!” My memory says it was a long minute.
Our world was still full of young and middle-aged veterans. Men and women who had lost loved ones, the memories fresh in their minds of those deaths and the losses still stretched heart strings and made stomach ache.
The young men, still in their mid-twenties and early-thirties, the same age as you are now, had been there with their friends as they fought, bled and died across Europe.
Some such as your great grandfather Stewart who had lost the use of his shoulder in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of WW 1, were only in their early 50’s and while the pain had dulled and the edge blunted by time, they too remembered.
As an aside, your grandfather Eugene Green, did get into the navy by memorizing the eye charts. Totally color blind, he faked his way through all those tests with the help of friends who had taken it earlier and described it for him. It was only when he was injured and had to retake the test – newly redesigned – he was discovered and given a medical discharge. Born in 1925, it was also possible he had been less than honest about his age as well.
But the world was different for those young men who had served and bonded overseas in the face of death. They didn’t take their friends lightly, indeed didn’t take life lightly, but came truly alive again in those moments of male bonding. We see a small measure of that in athletic teams they supported so enthusiastically and the way they encouraged us as young men to join teams and play as hard as we could. Sport was one way to create that same bond and they relived the good moments as best they could. Indeed they wanted that same sense, that same feeling for their children. The same camaraderie but without the pain and blood price to be paid on some far shore.
They also lived on the edge and indeed some went over it. We have medical names for it now but then it wasn’t understood and many simple faded from life finding the only way to blunt the hurt was the bottle. Some took different routes. I remember the full-out racing at the Toronto stock car races where the vets would battle as hard on the track as they did in the pits. Where the games and tricks they played on each other were as hard and fast as they could make them. What did you have to fear by filling a fire extinguisher with gasoline and setting a small fire in a friend’s car-pit area when you had both lived through the hell of night bombing raids over Germany where the official death rate of flight crew was 44%?
Today the city will not stop. The bells will ring and a few will ask why? But most will ignore them as just one more sound in the city. Traffic will rush, stores will keep selling and the cash registers will continue to fill. Only a very few young men will feel the pain and loss somewhere deep in their guts but most will ignore those bells as just an old-man’s memories. Even fewer will gather at memorials across the country but they will be ones who hurt now or those who need to remember our latest sacrifices in some remote part of the world, far from our daily concerns. Politicians will mouth platitudes and then return to cutting veteran budgets and services.
The world moves on and we forget them.
Image courtesy of SAC Andrew Morris/MOD