Thursday, November 11, 2004

Keeping the memory alive

I did something today I’ve been thinking about for years. I went to the Remembrance Day ceremony here in Hamilton.

I’ve often thought of attending, but over the years, I haven’t. Why? I couldn’t say for sure. It’s always been a special day for me. I’ve often watched the ceremonies on TV. But I have only attended an event a couple of times in my life. Of course, I went to special events when I was in school. I don’t remember too much about them, but I know we would listen to a veteran talk about his experiences and we’d spend a couple of minutes in silence. Not complete, of course. That’s too much to ask of school kids.

This year it will be 10 years since my Dad died. And I find myself thinking about him a lot these days. At this time of year, I think about his time in the service. He went overseas in 1943, just after his wedding. And he was away for almost three years. He was in Europe, but he didn’t see much fighting. He was an engineer, and his job was coming along after the infantry and helping to rebuild the roads and other infrastructure that were destroyed in the liberation.

He never talked much about those years. We have some stories and some mementoes, but there’s not a lot I know about what went on. And I don’t think that Dad ever attended a Remembrance Day ceremony. At least, not while I was around to remember. I’m sure he did after the war. But it wasn’t something he talked about much. Now I find myself always thinking about what he was doing when he was my age and it’s a strange feeling. In some ways, I think I’m becoming like other ways, we’re quite different.

Today, I found my mind wandering during the service. I was surrounded by a lot of people, yet I was alone. I live in this city, but I don’t know anyone. It is always strange to wander through a crowd like that and not recognize anyone. I wonder what it was like for those young men so many years ago to be sent to a foreign country and asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for their loved ones back home? Looking around at the faces today, I wonder whether we’ll ever see that kind of selflessness again. The world has changed, no question.

I’ll close with a short tale from the ceremony today.

One man told us about attending a conference in Windsor, Ontario, in 1994. He was there with his friend, a man from Scotland, who had suffered a stroke and was unable to move half of his body. They went down to the cafeteria for breakfast. Another man was sitting at a table by himself. So they asked whether they could sit with him. When their breakfast came, their small talk turned to shared experiences. The man telling the story said he could tell the other was an ex-serviceman and so he asked him which service he had been in. It turns out the man had been in a Tank brigade and had served in Italy during World War II.

“So I asked him, if you could meet one person from the war, who would it be?” our speaker told us. It’s a question he often puts to veterans, and he says it usually brings out an interesting story.

“That’s an easy one,” the other gentleman told him. “I would want to meet the man who saved my life, and the life of every man in my command. He was a small Scottish engineer. I was in command of a tank group and we were preparing to cross the river at a low point, where a lot of tanks had crossed the day before. But before we entered the river, this little Scot came running over, shouting at us not to move,” he said.

“There’s a German gun hidden in the trees on the other side, and they’ve been picking off everyone that goes into the river all day,” the little man told him. “Just stay put until we find another crossing.”

“I’ve never forgotten that guy. And if I had the chance, I’d give anything to shake his hand and thank him properly for what he did that day.”

At this, the stroke victim put his spoonful of corn flakes down. “Well, you’d better just go ahead and shake my hand now, because you may never get another chance,” he said.

Hard as it may be to believe, those two men were brought together by fate fifty years later. And for the next five years, until one of them died, they were inseparable. Quite a story.

I remember.

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