We can’t learn from a book simply by sitting next to one or owning it on a shelf. We can’t know someone by simply living next door. We can’t remember someone without having known them.
Are those true statements?
Can we learn something about something from someone if they never tell us?
She was brushing snow away with only one hand.
Impossible, I believe, not be moved by that sight – walking up long hill, a heavily bundled-up older woman brushing away snow from a grave marker this morning. Then another, then another, not frantic but methodical – in search of the one she sought. Not unusual thing to see, often on weekends and holidays.
Her left mitten-ed hand did the work while her right – held a flag.
As we returned – she continued to brush away snow, clearing a larger area, because she had surely found which grave she wanted. She brushed snow away all around that marker, and planted that Canadian flag. I kept walking. She didn’t need witnesses.
Some soldier, I expect, is buried there. His grave is cleared, his flag is waving and nothing in all today’s pomp all over this country could be more appropriate for this day of remembrance.
Where did they stand? Where did they fall?
Did you know Alexis Helmer?
He was a Canadian soldier.
He fell, in the Second Battle of Ypres, May 3, 1915. His friend a soldier, physician and poet wrote in his memory, that poem so well known, as is the story of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae from Guelph, Ontario.
But who knows Alexis?
We wear poppies and hear McCrae’s words every year – so poignant after so many years. So Canadian, so Belgian, so young, so old, so poignant and yet so distant because nearly all of us have, so fortunately, not known war or its experience. So proud.
Most of us have not heard bombs and gunshots.
Day or night, not been at risk or feared for our lives.
Most of us have neither bled in a war or trembled at the thought of getting ready to go.
In two world wars, and so many more in our history – Canadian men and women have been fighting wars since before there was an actual Canada, in and for parts of North America, fighting for freedom and liberty, fighting to keep peace and … more and more in recent decades, showing combatants that not fighting is a better way – all the while standing in harm’s way between opposing sides.
Most of us aren’t ready now, cannot imagine what it would be like to go, or to sign up just to be standing-by to fight for our country and liberty, or to sail across an ocean to help someone else fight for theirs. We cannot imagine – hard as we try, to know what it is like to stand, or fall, in their boots.
Understanding wars, warfare, soldier-ship and war’s agony is unknown to us. Nearly all of us know what we think we know because we read a book, a magazine article or watched a few movies about war or with war themes. We might have watched documentary films or actually done some research, but most of us have learned in these very superficial ways.
Who went? Who signed up?
Young men. Boys. So many of those boys lied about their age – and nobody challenged them because our country needed every able bodied person they could get. At 91 my dad, having entered Canada’s Air Force at 16, did not see action. Hubert repaired trainer aircraft in eastern Canada – in P.E.I. and Newfoundland. He was youngest of twelve. Two of his brothers were age-appropriate. Gordon had to stay home to tend the farm. Paul joined the Canadian Army, went overseas but never saw action, because the war ended.
There aren’t many veterans left from World War II. Those who are still around are in their 90’s, and in most cases were the youngest of soldiers who joined near the end of that war.
All those other survivors are gone, dead. Not from war, but from old age. There are younger veterans – of Korea, and so many non-war campaigns of peacekeeping where Canadians so often wore United Nations blue helmets. And all those soldiers, sailors and flyers who served their country in peace time. They didn’t fight, but they were ready to.
They still are today, standing by, ready to fight or keep peace or rescue people in trouble.
We wear poppies in November to remember those who died in our wars.
I have no words to trump their sacrifice, but it occurs to me that we don’t pay enough tribute to those who didn’t die, those who didn’t get wounded – those who worked, those who were ready, those who were standing by and ready to go.
Ready to serve.
Ready to risk their lives for others.
I guess I’ve watched our process – of government ceremonies, a minute’s silence at 11 AM, flags waving, wreaths laid and words recited – since I was a kid, like most Canadians as we learn of war and feel our hearts thump faster as we listen to the words of John McCrae but still wonder – what do we know, really, of war?
We should learn more.
And not forget.
What stands between the war and the peace?
Rows of crosses, or learning, lapels adorned with poppies, or knowing more?
That location is known as harm’s way.
Where do they stand?
Where do they fall?
In harm’s way, that’s where.
Soldiers get sent there all the time, sent into harm’s way so we don’t have to be.
So many have gone, so many have not returned and so many who came back were so altered as to be difficult to recognize as the same people – both physically and mentally – after having done their duty in theatres of war.
column written/ published from Calgary
morning walk: -13C / 9F, sunny and calm, traffic light, Gusta wanted so badly to get through the fence to meet a rather yappy border collie, its owner distracted by her task in the cemetery, we got our exercise and I will not soon forget this morning’s memory
Thank you Mark, as always, for your thoughts. Life is interesting. Puzzles are interesting. I remember a Christmas day in FortSaskatchewan. Lots of people, lots of generations, lots of food, lots of visiting. Downstairs was a giant puzzle laid out on a piece of wood. Chairs all around. Like life - ready and waiting. Someone had already started. Great! Build, build, build. Kids would go and start putting pieces in, not much luck. Some, much smarter adult, would come along and offer advice about looking for patterns. Great! Build, build, build. Then boredom, frustration, defeat. All would leave it for a while. Then someone else would start, others would join. Excitement there again! Five different areas all worked on at once. Some would want to build the borders, find the corners and try to make the ends meet. Others would pick a section or color and start their own mini-puzzle. Then, one person's section would seems to fit into another's. One piece connected them. Great! Build, build, build. Smaller scenes in the greater whole starting to come together now... oops that little section was a quarter turn out (know anyone like that?). Some stayed and built for a long time, some came once in a while and put one or two pieces in. Some sat in chairs, some sat on laps, some leaned over the shoulders of others, some just stood and watched from a distance. Lots of stories, jokes, told. Some arguments about process, some about dropping pieces! At the end of the day, I don't remember if that puzzle ended up fully built. I don't remember the picture. I do remember the build... , RT, Devon, AB
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