Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Act of Remembrance

          Douglas was a man who irritated me and whom I admired in equal parts.  His 'know it all' attitude was the equivalent of fingernails on chalkboard and it chafed my youthful idealism which was powered by a political awakening at high school courtesy of our weekly Macleans news magazine subscription and Mr. Conroy's history and politics classes.  He was certain that America and her free-wheeling capitalism would save us from the great Soviet red threat across the North Pole.  I was fresh-versed in American history and believed that Washington was the one who would press the red button and annihilate us all in mega tonne mushroom cloud blast. 
                This was our main point of friction and not the only one.  Douglas was my aunt Betty's brother and a friend of our family.  He was also a veteran of the Second World War, originally from Grand Bend Ontario who went to fight Hitler as a young man in Italy. 
                Douglas also gave me my most important education as a teenager. 
One afternoon when I was 15 he pulled out his maps, medals and told me what he did, the friends he lost, his experience in a field hospital and his view of God (he didn't believe God existed as he watched his friend get his head blown off only feet away from him).  He answered any question.   Ever since Douglas' death I have made it imperative to attend cenotaph services. 
                War was a huge part of my adolescence.  While other teenage girls were reading romances I read I am Maria a fictionalized account of a teen's time in a concentration camp.  I devoured World War 2 and Holocaust histories.  (This lead my dad to snap at me one day as he glanced at my casual reading material 'can't you read anything happy?')  My teenage years in the 80's were shaped in the dying flames of the Cold War and we were taught  that nuclear war was a near certainty: this message was enforced every Remembrance Day and our curriculum was full tales of nuclear doomsday and its aftermath. 
                But I became engrossed by the starkness of it all: you could even say that my theology was partly formed by war.  World Wars I and II were easy to figure out: good versus bad, good prevails but at a horrible cost.  It's the classic conflict of any story in any culture in the world.   It was the ordinary people in extraordinary situations that would continue to grip me.  I wondered if my generation would rise to the challenge that Douglas' did when confronted with the threat of Nazi Germany.  I collect stories of these people as they are slowly leaving us.  I keep newspaper clippings of interviews, obituaries and archive internet stories for my own perusal.  There is one common thread that arises in all these stories: from the soldiers who left the family farm as fresh-faced young men, to our ladies in auxiliary units, those who harboured Jews, assisted in the resistance, etc.               My former neighbour and childhood mentor Erma Keane of St. Pauls Ontario was a code breaker as a young woman (This is my best guess as she never gave me the straight story!  And her details went to the grave much to my personal loss.)  There are thousands, maybe millions of these people who rose to the challenge of their circumstances.   
            With one voice through the pages of history this is what they tell us: 'we did what we had to do'. 
                The more I study the history of this period over my life the more I am in awe of these people.  This is the power of the ordinary person, seemingly faceless but given the unimaginable power to change the world.
                It is the generals who plot war, the idealists and revolutionaries who dream of a better world and see war as an unfortunate but necessary means to a justified end.  But it is the blood of young and old, men and women, soldiers and civilians whose lives become the currency, the stock and trade of battlefield conflicts. 
                And I am a hopeful idealist, a revolutionary who dreams of a better world.  I am also a pacifist given my vocation and training.  I am a historian.  And I will always be grateful.

   '...To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.'
from In Flanders Fields  Lt Col John McRae 1915 of Guelph, Ontario


Store front of Budds 165 King Street, Kitchener

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