It was about fifteen years ago now. The day I drove through the beautiful fall colours along Highway 7 toward a tiny little village about an hour north of Kingston, ON. I was en route to visit an old friend who’d moved there from the Sault. He’d recently lost his wife to cancer and the urgency of my arrival was anticipated with the joy that only an old friend could bring.
The place was a dry country for many years, save for the one watering hole out on the highway: The Legion. It was a great Legion Hall where I’d come to know many of the folks who’ve now since passed.
We always hung out in the small bar in the basement. A pool table, a shuffleboard, pickled eggs, cold Labbatt 50; a calcified museum where memorabilia of the brave local men and women of the region adorned the walls beside a million other reminders of a by-gone era. An era I was not born into but an era my father lived through.
My dad often reminds us of the time an army recruiter walked into Ste. Anne’s College in 1939 and stood at the front of the classroom. “He pulled down a map of Europe. Mentioned something about a bad man named Hitler then told us how pretty the girls were in England. It wasn’t conscription but it may as well have been! Within minutes we were all in line at the back of the classroom signing up. When I told my mother she was very proud of me. She made me a care package upon leaving with the understanding that I’d be home in six months. I returned five years later.”
He carried a picture in his wallet of a girl he ‘kind of liked’ who lived in his Acadian village. “I looked at that picture throughout the war. It kind of got me through things. I returned home to realize she was married. Don’t look back son. You can’t change the past. Look forward and keep busy.”
In asking him about whether he saw action he would refuse to respond. There were times when we’d be relentless with our questions, yet he’d refuse to answer. He’d only ever say “Those who talked too much of heroics likely didn’t see the worst of it.” We accepted this answer.
We knew he’d been ‘knocked out overboard’ somewhere in Normandy.
“I can’t quite remember. I was on a small boat in Normandy I think. I can’t remember the weeks prior to or after that incident really. The Germans bombed us and I was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel… so they tell me. They said I was lying unconscious on the bottom of the riverbed for over two minutes when a member of my regiment Bill Goodall found some scuba gear amidst the chaos and saved me. I never did find out what happened to Bill. I heard he moved back to Calgary. I wonder if he’s still alive?
You know the strangest thing about that experience? I awoke in a field hospital with a knife in my mouth! I panicked – thinking I’d been captured and was being tortured. Immediately a nurse held me down and said the doctor was holding my tongue in place so that I wouldn’t choke.”
These minor anecdotes were all we’d receive over the years. It’s only been since mom passed last year that he’s cryptically mentioned that he was part of D-DAY +1. He said they were referred to as “the clean up crew.” He told me the story. I can’t bear to repeat it. Lately it’s been one after another – usually comical stories. What’s better than humour in face of all of that darkness. I guess that’s why I loved Heller’s Catch 22 or Altman’s MASH.
Dad just turned 95. I recently reread him Wilfred Owen’s classic WWI poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Owen himself died a week before the armistice but was able to get these poems home in the form of letters – directly from the trenches. The title is based on an ode from the Roman poet Horace, addressing what he calls The Great Lie that : “It is great and glorious to die for ones country.”
My father never tires of this sentiment.
As I sat down in the eastern Ontario Legion Hall that crisp autumn Saturday afternoon, a woman came downstairs and tapped me on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry to trouble you with this, but I have a daft idea. Would you mind coming into the office for a minute?
The last time you were here you played us a song your wrote about your father and I think there are some men upstairs in the main hall who’d like to hear it. We have a band peforming later so there’s a full PA on stage and a lot of vets are here to celebrate a members retirement. Do you have your guitar?”
And with that, I was out in the parking lot grabbing my six string and then proceeded into the main entrance of the hall. The parking lot had filled up since my arrival and there were at least 200 veterans, mostly men sitting at long tables. They were dressed in their official military uniforms and suddenly the hall became very quiet.
The woman introduced me along with the brief story of how she’d heard
the song, which added proper context to my arrival. I offered the aforementioned story to set up the song and then sang it to pin drop silence.
When it was over, I opened my eyes to see the men on their feet applauding. The applause lasted long enough to make me well up. I thanked them and while still shaking…left the stage to go back out to the parking lot. Unable to deal with the emotion of the moment, I sat in my car for ten minutes until I was able to go back in and properly meet the men.
Of any performance I’ve ever given; anywhere and for all time – this one simple performance will never be surpassed. Ever. I knew it the moment it happened. I still get chills thinking about it.
I went downstairs to join my friends for the evening. The guitar came out and stayed out for the duration of the night. We sang every song I could think of. The basement bar filled up with many of the vets after the ceremony in the hall was over. At the end of the night I had all of the vets singing Vera Lynne’s – We’ll Meet Again (I’d learned it from my fathers record collection). A day to remember.
I can’t know about the horrors of war. These wars that plague humanity. Is it about the haves and the have not’s? I think so. Can’t we outthink our nature? I don’t know. I’m just another flawed human living in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. I’m no great historian and likely an innocent contributor to the empires pending fall. I only see merit in trying to paint the hallways a little brighter for all of us who have to walk through this life. Maybe that’s my role. What’s yours? No different from anyone elses yet much different from the vets who put their lives on the line to defend a principle.
And for that one songwriter who I met a few years ago who chastised me for wearing a poppy arguing it was a tired symbol of war – shame on you.
I thought you knew better.
Here’s your song dad. And to the memory of Bill Goodall, the West 27th Nova Scotian regiment and veterans of all wars I can only quote John Lennon: “War is over. If you want it.”