Heroes’ long-ago sacrifice still remembered

The act of remembrance continues as Canadians pay tribute to the men and women who fought and died around the world

I was too young to realize the full impact of the Second World War, but each day at 9 p.m. a solemn hush descended over the household as my parents sat in front of the cabinet radio to listen to the CBC news.

The voice usually said something similar to, “Good evening. Casualties were high today as Canadian troops advanced….”

“Casualty” was a strange word to me, but I recognized its sad overtones as Mom took a flowered hanky from her apron pocket and dabbed at moist eyes. No doubt she was thinking of Sid, Arthur, Dave, Reg and Ab — hometown men who had donned uniforms and waved goodbye at the train station in town.

I puzzled over their absence as I nibbled at my bedtime lunch. In the background, the unruffled voice of Matthew Halton, reporting from the BBC in London, England, droned on, valiantly competing against the static interference. The intensity of it rose and fell, like the swell of the sea, I thought, for England was far across the ocean, and I, too, was drifting far, far away, the oilcloth table covering warm and moist from the condensation of my breath as I fell asleep.

Morning seemed to come quickly, the whine of the cream separator and the crackling of the fire in the cook stove told me that Mom was already at work.

On the farm, life went on as usual, despite a shortage of hired hands. The rationing of sugar frustrated farm wives, including my mother.

Dad was able to swap field work in exchange for honey from a local beekeeper. Crudely processed, the honey often contained bits of beeswax that Mom fished out to give to me — the best chewing gum ever.

Then one day, sugar was no longer rationed, and Mom gave me her coupon books to play with. At the train station in Portage la Prairie, Man., there was a troop train to meet, bringing home Hong Kong veterans. In jubilant spirits, the returning men hoisted us kids up above the crowd and their khaki uniforms felt scratchy against my bare arms.

That fall, I started school, and before Nov. 11, a teacher tried to explain the war. Stirred by her talk on patriotism, I eagerly exchanged a hard-earned nickel for a blood red poppy to wear over my heart.

Five years later, we were assigned the poem “In Flanders Fields” as memory work. The student who recited it best, along with a friend, was invited to participate in the local Remembrance Day service held each year. Two of us hurried across the railway tracks to the little white United Church just before 11 a.m. and slipped into a pew.

Asked to turn in the hymnbook to O God Our Help In Ages Past, the congregation began singing in time to the old pump organ: “Time like an ever rolling stream bears all her sons away. They fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day….”

I wanted to protest. These men are not forgotten. Their names are all engraved on the marble wall plaque right beside me, names that are familiar to me, local family names. Their relatives are sitting all around me. That’s why we’re here — to remember them.

That’s also why on successive years the entire student body gathered around the flag pole on Remembrance Day. Our teeth chattered behind purple lips as an icy northwest wind tore through the broken ranks of autumn leaves, piercing our threadbare coats.

I finished school, married and decades later, coming home from a trip out West, my husband and I stopped for breakfast at a little town in Saskatchewan.

The place looked deserted as we crossed the railway tracks. No trucks at the elevator. No cars at the general store. The school was closed. We drove around until we spotted the familiar Coca Cola sign that marked many rural cafés.

As I opened the door, the smell of hot coffee reached out to rescue us from the grip of a biting wind. A skiff of snow covered the ground outside and heavy grey clouds hung ominously low. Winter was threatening.

The row of grey-haired men sitting hunched over their coffee at the snack bar with their parkas puffed out reminded me of a late migration of birds, the bright logos on their caps offering clues to their identity. Most “species” of farm equipment dealerships across the Prairies were represented.

The man who served us was a slightly built fellow, his features wrinkling into numerous creases as he smiled. He wore a red poppy on the pocket of his white shirt. Why of course. This was Nov. 11, Remembrance Day.

A portly gentleman came in wearing a Legion blazer and navy beret, insisting they had both shrunk since last year at this time. He was joined by two others in similar attire. The row of coffee drinkers gradually extended down the entire length of the café, and the friendly waiter was kept busy refilling cups and making change.

As we ate our breakfast, I picked up snatches of conversation regarding an upcoming service at the cenotaph. As the hands of the big clock inched toward 11 a.m., the coffee drinkers left, one by one by one.

The advance of a prairie winter can daunt the stoutest heart, and except for rare and unusual reasons, nobody wants to leave the snug warmth of hearth and home on a bleak November Day. It is significant, therefore, that hushed crowds still gather to pay silent tribute at Canadian cenotaphs at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

And so we should.

“If a man live many years, and rejoice in them all, yet let him remember the days of darkness.” (Ecclesiastes 11:8)

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