Monday, November 11, 2013

Lest we forget

When I was in the first grade, I memorized the poem In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.

Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum

I don't specifically remember how I came to learn this poem by heart. I doubt that my teacher would assign a memorization assignment of this scale to a bunch of six year olds, although surely she read it to us. But I do remember the big blue book in which it was published, that I used to carry with me around the house. And day after day after day after day, I would read and re-read and re-read and re-read this one poem, until I knew it's every word without needing to glance at a page. And then I would recite it to my mother, to my father, to my sister, to my baby brother, and to anyone who would listen to me.

Where did this come from? I honestly don't know. There is no tradition of military service in my family. Grandpa was too young to have served in World War II, and Pepère was so arthritis-ridden that his service was refused. I have no siblings, no uncles, no aunts, no cousins who chose to join the forces. I myself never considered it. 

And yet, for whatever reason, this 15-line poem captured my young girl's imagination like nothing I had read before it. Perhaps it was because it left me with so many innocently child-like questions about why men and women kill each other. Whatever the reason, from the time that I was but a young girl, I have loved this poem. And Remembrance Day has long held a special place in my heart.

When I was 19 and attending university as a history student, I enrolled in a cooperative education program. My first placement was with the Canadian War Museum as an interpretive tour guide. My job was not only to give tours of the museum, but to do so in period garb to demonstrate the various wartime roles that Canadian women performed throughout our history. I was a colonial camp follower, a World War I nursing sister, a World War II Rosie-the-Riveter, and a member of the Canadian Women's Army Corps. And in these various states of dress, I would lead bus-loads of school-aged children and senior citizen tour groups through Canada's military history. It was a great way to spend my first summer away from home.

What made this job so special was not the fact that, for the first time in my life, my pay cheque was derived from something other than waiting tables for minimum wage. It was not that I was marrying my deep love of Canadian history with earning my keep. It was not even seeing the look of delight on children's faces when they turned the corner and saw the Spitfire. It was because of the many veterans who I had the honour to meet.

Like the Korean War veteran, who, in response to a young boy who asked him what all his medals were for, humbly replied, "Those, son, are for eating chocolate bars."

Like the best friends - both World War II veterans - who were at Dieppe together. One day, I caught them shedding silent tears as they followed me through the Dieppe memorial section of the museum while I gave a tour to a group of grade 7s. When they thanked me for my retelling of this tragic battle, I not-so-silently fought back tears of my own, overwhelmed with the ridiculousness of them thanking me.

Like the World War II veteran who, when he saw me dressed as a nursing sister, came in the following week with the veil that his wife, a real nursing sister, wore, asking me to wear it the next time I chose this particular costume.

Like the American naval veteran who, when he saw me dressed as a member of the Canadian Women's Army Corps, started singing to me "All nice girls love a sailor" and proceeded to regale me with stories about the pretty girls he dated when he was in the army.

Like the World War I veteran, one of only twenty-five remaining in Canada at the time, who told us stories of how, in the trenches of Vimy, he used to have to kill rats with his bayonet.

Like the former UN Peacekeeper, whose jeep had been overturned by a land mine in Bosnia, but who lived to see the unveiling of the new (at the time) Peacekeeper section of the museum.

Like the women who could not sign up for combat roles, but who joined the forces to help out in other ways because they wanted to support the Canadian troops.

It was these brave men and women who made this job the most rewarding that I have ever had. With their humility and with their quiet strength, they touched my heart, each and every one of them.

Fifteen years later, the make-up of Canada's veteran corps has changed dramatically. The last World War I veteran has passed away. There are fewer and fewer World War II veterans with each passing year, and at the national remembrance ceremony, their dwindling numbers can not but be noticed. There are more blue berets - from Korea and other peacekeeping missions - to be seen in the parade. And of course, there are the men and women who have served in more recent conflicts such as Afghanistan. These veterans are my age. They are younger than me. Some of them are friends of mine.

They are fewer and fewer in numbers.

The Veteran's parade

And so, like so many others, on November 11, I pause to remember. To remember my six-year-old's infatuation with a starkly beautiful poem. To remember Norm and Jerry and Nelson and all the other veterans I met during that long-ago summer. To remember the friends of mine who have, much more recently, done a tour of duty in Afghanistan. To remember the sons and daughters who gave their lives so that we could be free.

And to thank them.

Lest we forget.

The National Remembrance Day Ceremony