My great-grandfather, O.V.M.-R., served in WWI, along with his future wife, a nurse he met on the boat. They settled in Canada after the war, but he was asked by the British government to return and help step the tide of WWII. He Christmased in the Ardennes and held off the Germans until more troops arrived in the new year.
He was a great man. He died in 1949 so even my mother never met him, but I feel like he and I are old friends and I know when I die we’ll have a lot of catching up to do, him and me. He wrote to my great-grannie faithfully, every week. And she, with meticulous care, preserved each letter in each envelope and bundled them chronologically. I came across them in a box with her journals from the same time. She was a naturalist, so her journals are all about the weather and what bird she saw that day. The letters are pure gold. They are so good, in fact, that I used them as a stepping-off point for a major paper I did in my grade 11 history class. It was one of the best papers I’ve ever done. (And yet M. Langlois gave me a C and the girls who collaborated on a 10-frame comic got a 97%. I’m still bitter. M. Langlois also gave me poor marks on my paper on the 1918 flu pandemic, a paper I hadn’t thought about until all this bird flu pandemic rhetoric came up. But I digress, my beefs with M. Langlois deserve a post of their own.) During times of high secrecy his regular letters had to be replaced with pre-printed postcards with a multiple-choice-type format where he circled things like, “I am well.” I think I learned as much about war from the impersonal, censored postcards as I did from his uncensored letters.
My grandfather, FMH, also served in WWII. I have spent hours looking at his old helmet and wondering about the stories. He never spoke much of the war and we didn’t push it. He is more of a quiet man. But he recently published his memoires in an autobiography titled, “The Long Way Up.” I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to soon; I think I’ll start today.
I spent every Remembrance Day at the cenotaph and I wore my poppy. (I still have my poppy in my jewelry box.) In high school I was back up in the Yukon and we celebrated inside. The school choir sang “Danny Boy“, the English classes did an interpretive dance to “In Flanders Fields“, my friends who were cadets stood guard around the cenotaph placed in the middle of the gym floor. I thought of my grandfathers, and all those I didn’t know who have put their lives on hold for us. No matter your political ideology, these men and women deserve our respect.
I honour the holiday differently since I moved to the US. The ceremonies seem more sparse and poorly announced. There are more sales in the mall. Disneyland starts their Christmas season tomorrow (or today??) I try to take time to think.
I shared “In Flanders Fields” with my classes; it was fresh to them. But for you, my cyberfriends, I will share a blurb from my grandfather’s bookjacket.
In or out of uniform, an American salut is a quite simple matter, with the hand held flat and shading the right eye. With the Americans, it is the shortest way up and the shortest way down. The head may be bare or covered and you don’t even need to be in uniform, as we have often seen on television and in the movies. Not so, in the Canadian Army, which takes its traditions from the British.
I enlisted during the war and one of the first things I learned was how to salute; who to salute to, and when it was necessary to pay that compliment. The Drill Sergeant kept us at it until he was satisfied we knew the proper procedure. As he described it; one took a full arm swing upward, with the palm forward above the eye, then straight down when the salute was acknowledge. As he so succinctly put it, the motion was, “Longest way up, and shortest way down”.
We learned further, that saluting was only done when in uniform, complete with the appropriate head covering. Should one be caught bareheaded, the appropriate action was to snap to attention and hold the position until it was recognized.
When the long awaited invasion of France took place, I was among the reinforcements. Our Second Division was in tents in the Dover area, where we were used as decoys to confuse the enemy, causing him to expect the invasion would be in the Pas de Calais area.
We finally arrived in France on the Beaches of Normandy, after we had been several days in the hold of a scruffy freighter from the Indian Ocean. The weather had turned warm, ablutions facilities were non-existent, water was a scarece commodity, the sun was hot and we were concentrated beside a road that led to the front.
It got to the point that I could hardly stand my own smell, so I scrounged enough water from the cook to fill my mess tins; one for soap and the other for rinse. Naked as a jay, I was just starting on my head when along came a couple of motorbike outriders, followed by a swanky open Daimler that had once belonged to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, prior to its capture in the Libyan Desert.
Sure enough, the brasshat relaxing in the back seat was none other than General Bernard Montgomery. There and then, I instinctively snapped to attentin and was rewarded with a smile and one of the most flamboyant salutes I had ever seen. It was the only time I ever saw him in the flesh; but he sure as hell saw me in mine!
Winning Literary Award for Humorous Short Story
Joyce Dunn Memorial Writing Competition