The first time I met my father-in-law we were standing next to the Eternal Flame on Parliament Hill. He had just finished testifying before a Senate committee regarding the sacrifice of the members of the Canadian Merchant Navy during the Second World War. While they had been instrumental and absolutely essential in the war effort by being the supply line to the front lines, and suffered the highest casualty rate of the four branches of the Canadian military, none of these merchant mariners were entitled to a military pension. Dave was one of them. He didn’t need the money but he spoke on their behalf. They eventually got their pensions and I like to think that Dave had a small part in rectifying that injustice.
Dave had been a merchant mariner and he was in Australia on V-J Day on August 15th, 1945, when the war ended. He was nineteen years old. He died a year ago. He would have been ninety-two this year.
My paternal grandfather, Charlie Clarke, grew up in Ottawa and when he wanted to enlist in the army during the First World War, he crossed the bridge to Hull so he’d be less likely to be recognized by his father’s friends and comrades in arms. He was sixteen. I think he fought at Passchendaele, but I can’t be sure. He did fight in the trenches in France and when the war was over he went to England to finish high school. When he came home, he had ten children, over forty grand-children and countless great and great-great grand children. He was eighteen when the last shots were fired. He lived a good, long life but he’s been gone for thirty-three years.
My Great Aunt Roberta was a nurse who headed to Europe during the Second World War. She sailed from Halifax on one of those boats that carried thousands of people and may have taken weeks to load. It was only in a passing conversation many years later with one of her brothers, who also served, that they’d realized they were on the same ship at the same time and each had no idea. Such was service and the war in those days. Aunt Bobby lived a long life too but she’s been gone for thirteen years now.
When I was in high school in the early eighties, there were a few faculty members who were also alumni. There were three or four older guys who were guidance counsellors, a math teacher and a history teacher. As teenagers, we thought of them as kindly but we didn’t take them all that seriously because they seemed past their prime and we were young and stupid.
Until Remembrance Day came around.
We would assemble in the auditorium of our old school and listen to the National Anthem and have a moment of silence but what stuck with me more than anything were the speeches by these old fellows who we barely noticed while passing them in the halls. They fought in the war. Their friends and classmates fought in the war. The fourth floor of our school had been a gunnery range. Boys my age, who wandered the same halls I did, who wandered the same halls some of my old friends’ children do today, they went to war and they didn’t come back. They read Shakespeare and Dickens and Mark Twain. They hated algebra and liked the pretty girls and tried to make the team. The same wind that blew down the street along the canal in the winter froze their bones as they did mine. And now the old friends of these long gone soldiers, who stood on that school stage forty years later, trying to tell a little a bit of their stories, are now gone too.
They’ll soon all be gone.
Lest We Forget, they say. Soon enough, no one will really remember. There won’t be any personal stories anymore. No tales of the jokers and the handsome kids, the ones with great ambition, the ones who sang like angels. The heroic, the leaders and the loyal, the selfless and the courageous. We can’t remember or forget that which we never knew. But we can try to, as best we can, imagine remembering. We owe it to them.
It is my hope, that some time in the future, tens of thousands will gather around the War Memorial on November 11th, young pre-school children and seniors alike, and they’ll try to imagine the sacrifice that was once made by young men and women, not too different from themselves, that allows them to stand in a peaceful and free land. There won’t be any veterans anymore because war was so long ago. But they’ll still endeavour to remember that which they’ve never known. And then maybe all of the sacrifice will have been worth it after all.
Lest We Forget.