Today is November 11th, a time when we remember and honour those who fought, and those who died, so that we might live lives that include choice and freedom. This post is my tribute to them and to the men and women who continue to lay their lives on the line every day.
Remembrance Day is here again.
So what do I actually remember? Well, I remember that on November 11,1959 when I was eleven years old, I was asked to observe a minute’s silence to think about the gift of my freedom and what it meant to me.
I remember laying my head down on my desk in the classroom and thinking about my sister’s father, Tom. Her father married our mother in 1941 or 42, when they were both very young. During that time, I doubt they had a lot of time to be together or to experience the usual ups and downs that generally characterizes marriage. In fact, I expect their ups and downs were underscored more by the number of furloughs Tom had from the army, the excitement of the arrivals and the sadness and fear of the all-too-soon departures.
While Tom was doing his duty in Europe, our mother was working in a munitions factory. It was a suffocating experience, as she constantly breathed in the fumes that went along with assembling lethal ammunition meant for the enemy but just as likely toxic to those employed to make it. And at night, she suffered from the heat and claustrophobia that blackout curtains inevitably produced. She was pregnant too. She gave birth to my sister after what turned out to be a very long and hard labour. Both nearly died in the process. But it wasn’t their time to die. Sadly, the same could not be said for Tom.
I remember my mother telling me that she received her telegram on VE day, a day of celebration. The war in Europe had come to an end. Everyone was jubilant. There were people in the streets singing and dancing, all, it seemed, but my mother whose grief must have been so much more intense in the face of the happy excitement around her.
As it turned out, my mother was to meet Tom’s wartime buddy, who came to pay respects to his best friend’s widow. They eventually married and had a happy life together that spanned fifty-three years and included my sister and, in time, me too.
I remember the stories my father told me about his experiences in WWII. At first, they were the stories about life in the army and the silly things that happened to him and his tank unit. The lighter side of war was necessary, I think, to relieve the tension of hours of boredom followed by minutes of abject terror.
Later, as we both got older, he would talk about the darker side of his experience. He told me of one of his fellow soldiers who, apparently completely lacking a decent moral compass, took the watch from the wrist of a dead German soldier. For this soldier it came under the category of the spoils of war, but to my father and many like him, it was a disgusting and reprehensible thing to do.
He talked too, about getting used to seeing dead soldiers everywhere. He said that he got over the revulsion and learned to ignore it for the sake of his own survival. To him, they began to take on the appearance of wax mannequins and that’s how he preferred to view them. They were gone. There was nothing he could do for them except to pray for their loved ones and do what he could to live and be around for his own family.
The one sight he could not rationalize was the picture he carried in his head and heart of the farmer whose house had been bombed. My father encountered him walking down the road one day, somewhat confused and disoriented, and carrying his dead child. It is an image that Dad never forgot and one that brought him to tears in the telling.
This is the thing. We can all perhaps defend the need for fighting each other when we are caught up in a cause that we believe is vital to our very survival but it is hard to look into the face of a dead child and not think that there must be another way.
If there is, we have yet to find it and so, in spite of our days of remembrance and the gratitude we feel to those who made, and are making, so many sacrifices for the sake of our freedom, we continue to find things to fight about.
In my life so far, I have never had to take up arms against another human being. I am grateful to all of those who have fought for my freedom in the past and pray for all of those who are at this moment in harm’s way so that I, and my family, might be safe.