On December 5th in 1925, my wife’s father was born to a Baptist family in North Vancouver. His father had been an ace cricket player in England and was lured to Canada with dreams of riches that would reward his athletic skills. When he got here, there wasn’t the team he’d been promised because that team had never existed in the first place but he was too proud to return home after he’d received such an elaborate send-off. So he became a Canadian. And he kept traveling west.
Dave Broadfoot was the youngest of four and the only boy. He was a poor student and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He used to say that his education really began when he left school. And he left school before his fifteenth birthday to work in the shipyards. He eventually became a part of the Merchant Navy. At an age when kids these days, through no fault of their own, are trying to figure out what kind of phone they should get next. He lived another seventy years and became a Canadian comedic icon. And my father-in-law.
On December 6th, 1989, a psychopath separated the female engineering students from their male counterparts and killed as many of these young women as he could. It was at the École Polytechnique and it became known as the Montreal Massacre. Fourteen women were killed and it remains the biggest massacre in modern Canadian history. Only the women were targeted. It was a misogynistic style of mass murder we’d never encountered before. Monuments to violence against women were created across Canada. Not just for the fourteen victims but for any victims of spousal homicide. One of my friend’s name is carved into stone along with the fourteen from the Montreal Massacre. With hundreds of other women. Michele Chiesa.
Two days after Dave’s sixteenth birthday, the bombing of Pearl Harbor happened. December 7th, 1941. After years of isolationism and war profiteering, the Americans finally had no choice but to start spilling some of their own blood. Some will tell you they won the war. And some will ask why it took so long to start fighting the war. I will tell you that Dave was sixteen and was already on a boat on the west coast as part of the war effort. When most of my friends skipped a class in grade ten or eleven, it was to smoke a cigarette and listen to some Led Zepplin. No one was fighting a war. Not a world war anyway.
On December 8th, 1980 John Lennon was killed. It’s the first time I felt my heart break a little. I was thirteen years old. In those days, we could walk from Rideau Street through the Defense Department buildings, up and down the spiral stair cases to get from one bridge to another to cross the canal and finally arrive at my school. The Defense Building had newspaper boxes from every western country in the world on its concourse. And they all had the same pictures and the same headlines. For a hundred yards I saw John Lennon’s face and was reminded that he’d been assassinated. It’s one of a handful of days in my life I’ll never forget.
Three months into grade nine, on December 9th, 1979, smallpox was eradicated. The first disease to officially be driven into extinction. I had no idea. But in the grand scheme of things it was a world-shaking event.
In 1996, South Africa adopted a new constitution. After decades of apartheid and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, on December 10th, the nation so reviled by most of the western world had changed. With a new constitution and new leadership, earnest university students the world over (and I had been one of them) no longer felt the need to chant, “Free Nelson Mandela”.
On December 11th in 1972, Apollo 17 was the last American space craft to land on the moon. Forty-five years ago. What seemed so important for the previous fifteen years became an afterthought. We have to get to the moon first, they said. Been there, done that, within three years. I guess they made their point.
In any case, there are seven days this week that resonate with me. All but one within my lifetime. I would suggest there isn’t a seven day period in any part of the year that doesn’t have a kind of world-wide resonance. But we don’t generally look all that hard at the past, do we? If something earth-shattering were to happen tomorrow, I wonder if it would even make a dent in the history books a few hundred years from now. Or fifty years from now. Or even ten years from now.
As we live for the moment, forgetting yesterday’s lessons and ignoring tomorrow’s warnings, it suggests an arrogance we collectively exhibit. And just as no one ever became poor by giving of themselves, no one has ever been degraded by humility.