I am generationally defined as a baby-boomer. I was born at a time of relative global peace and unlike my father and my grandfather before me, I have never been compelled to join an armed force and go to war. I can complain about a lot of things but I belong to a very lucky generation, a generation of Canadians who truly benefitted from the sacrafices of those who went before.
My grandfather, at the age of 36 married my grandmother in Vancouver BC and then headed off to training and eventually found himself in early 1916 in and around Ypres digging trenches and tunnels.
Spend any time online looking at the history of the First World War and you will see that this part of the battlefield was a daily orgy of killing and destruction and then attempt to imagine what this must have been like for someone whose weapon was a pick and a shovel and whose theatre of operation was the daily rebuilding of the trenches and roads and related tunnel systems thick with the remains one’s comrades in arms. My grandfather was eventually buried in an attack while underground and in the fall of 1916 was send away from the front being declared unfit for active duty. He was sent home diagnosed with “shell shock”. He became an unemployable veteran who was shamed by his siblings and others and yet somehow he managed to maintain his dignity through the rest of his 90-year life. I remember him as a richly engaging man who smiled often and always had something joyful to say to his grandchildren.
Sadly, as with many of my grandfather’s generation who believed that they had fought the war to end all wars, 20 years later they were forced to witness another global war and to sadly watch their sons go off to face another enemy in another horrendous conflict.
My father joined the Canadian air force in 1940 at the age of 18 and although he found himself as a member of a bomber crew over Europe and then in a similar capacity in the Mediterranean Sea off Malta in fall of 1941, he always felt that he had (in his words) “a good war” as he was moved to an Air Sea Rescue Squadron in Egypt at the end of 1941 and spent over 3 years in North Africa rescuing people from both land and sea. I gather it was not always as pleasant as he would portray it but after 4 years in Europe and Africa he came home with few apparent physical and/or emotional scars. His two brothers (one in the navy and the other in the army) did not fare as well. Their scars (not visible) haunted them for the rest of their lives.
My father made a career of the Air Force (RCAF) as he loved his military life. I was raised in this environment, moving from air base to air base and as I knew no different, I too loved the life. I was lucky to have parents who loved each other and worked well together and I was given the gift of their love and their love of life.
I was also given the gift of peace in my time, the peace that neither my father’s nor my grandfather’s generation knew. It is this peace that is so powerfully felt yet extends with a heavy weight. I hold on to this gift especially as we approach Remembrance Day – November 11. It is a symbolic date but it is one that I hope we can hold on to and one whose meaning and significance can remain part of the fibre and fabric of this country well beyond the lifetime of any who may have a shred of connection to the more challenging events of the twentieth century.
The twenty-first century has exposed us to challenges that past generations may never have imagined. However, by attempting to keep the stories alive and to continue to help a new generation find ways to connect with their history and help them find their place within the richness of our lived experiences, we can hope that the message of remembrance might be one of understanding, peaceful and shared coexistence, and a belief that our future is tied to our willingness to work together.