At 11 am on November 11th – on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour – take a minute in your day and hold in your mind people in your past or present who have fought in wars or battles on behalf of their country and their families. Many died fighting, many lived to come home and raise families, and honour their dead friends. Many came home maimed, in body or spirit, no longer completely whole. Remember them.
On my mother’s side, my grandfather’s father returned to England to fight as an infantryman and came back from WWI shell shocked – we’d call it PTSD nowadays – no longer able to support his family, a stranger to his sons and wife. My grandfather himself served in WWII in the Royal Canadian Airforce as an adjutant – in his 30’s, he was too old to serve in a more active role, but his squadron’s first tour of duty was in the Aleutian Islands (the most northern islands in Alaska) in a joint defence with the US. His bomber squadron was later sent to England where his civilian training as a teacher landed him an office job mainly writing letters of condolence daily to new widows and mothers of dead sons, and putting together those young mens belongings to be mailed home, all the while trying not to think of his own wife and daughter back home.
My Dad was age 20 when WWII broke out, and had recently completed his training as a navigational officer for the merchant marine. He served very briefly in the RNVR, but soon transferred to the RNR and served most of the next 5 years in convoy duty in the North Atlantic, much of that time in a destroyer called HMS Burnham, an old 4 stacker that was part of the Lend Lease agreement. Prior to the Burnham, he had been in a ship that was torpedoed and sunk and could never bring himself to talk about his feelings or describe what it was like floating in u-boat infested freezing, oily ocean, hoping – praying – that an escort would come and pick up survivors. If you know anyone who served in war, you’ve probably noticed that they tell a lot of funny stories, but you won’t hear much about the harsh realities. But look at their faces, notice the lines, the distant look in their eyes when one funny story leads to a sudden memory of a lost friend, or a time too horrible to bring back.
My husband and I both served several years in peacetime with the Royal Canadian Navy. In the many years of standing stiffly in platoon at the cenotaph, toes and fingers frozen, hat dripping – I always watched the veterans greeting each other, back slapping, telling jokes, and then pulling their shoulders back, and standing still, silent and remote. The veteran’s platoons are looking younger these days – men who served in the World Wars are gone or too frail to stand in the chilly November weather. The men and women in the vets ranks now have served so many places in the last 30 or more years – Korea, Afghanistan, peacekeeping in the Middle East or Cyprus, Haiti, and more. It doesn’t matter when they saw action – their faces are always the same, young or old – distant, inward focussed. They all know they are the lucky ones.
My girls know these things. I make sure I bore them with it every year, like a catechism. I want this to be ingrained in them. Both my father and my grandfather lived long enough to share some of their stories with the girls themselves, which helps. Many of their friends have no contact with anyone who served in the “great” wars, and thus have a tendency to shrug off any requests for respect on this day. One once wore poppies all over her jacket, thinking it funny. Her parents didn’t think it mattered. I was shocked. Maybe they were right though. They’re just little red flower pins – meaningless in themselves. But they stand for something so much bigger. A tribal memory – a retelling of our past that we have to make sure gets passed down. Honouring those who served and fell is not just about thinking about them, it’s about making sure we and those who come after us don’t let all that pain and anguish and exhaustion, fear, despair, mud, cold, noise, and death be for nothing. It is not to be taken for granted.
For the Fallen
by Laurence Binyon
They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them
We will remember them