Remembrance Day is over. The last of the Halloween treats have disappeared. Christmas is about to descend on us along with freezing rain and snow. Until next year then. We have paid our respects to our soldiers, sailors and airmen, to our veterans and to those who lie in Flanders Field overseas and across our own land. And now to a busy tomorrow.
Only this year was different, At least for me. As time moves on, there are recurring remembrances of years gone by. As a child I recall rumours of German submarines in the St. Lawrence River. We had blackouts on January evenings when we sat wordlessly in our living room waiting for CBO to give the ‘all clear.’ I remember crawling under our desks as an air raid drill. I remember the cheering and singing on Parliament Hill celebrating VE Day. I stood with my dad to watch. I remember my grandfather, then in his late 70s, vaulting over the hockey boards to embrace one of his sons who came home, having fought in Holland and then staying on as part of the Canadian occupying force. I remember my uncle never telling a wartime story. To anyone. I remember another uncle, the youngest, a newly minted mining engineer from Queens University signing up with the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He had an officer’s hat and a swagger stick. A man to me and a boy to my parents, he was on his way to the Pacific theatre when the atom bombs fell. My dad was close to tears of thankfulness when it happened. I remember the softly lit chapel dedicated to Col. John McCrae at the entrance of the Montreal General Hospital and the life-size pictures of confident young men in uniform on the walls of the Doctors Residence at Montreal Children’s Hospital. Their parents had funded its construction as a memorial to their fallen sons. I remember the years of attending the War Memorial Service in front of Parliament Hill when mothers with Silver Crosses laid wreaths in the presence of quiet crowds. All those days seem to have been grey, cold and drizzly.
I am not certain why these recollections of days gone by always return on Nov. 11. Certainly, the St. Albert Remembrance Day ceremonies in recent years have been indelibly respectful. But then these are of present days, so perhaps that has made them less emotionally impressionable.
Until this year. Usually I come early and select a spot on the balcony of St. Albert Place. It was always a good place for my family to stand, particularly when the children were younger. And there have been some years when I participated in laying a wreath. So this year was not expected to be particularly different. But it was.
I was on the edge of the crowd, standing in about the fourth row of an ill-defined rank-and-file line of St. Albertans, surrounded by young soldiers. There wasn’t much movement. People talking softly. Everyone stood at firm attention when the anthems were sung –— in response partly to the example of those among us. Part way through the morning’s ceremony, we were joined by a thick-shouldered man with short cropped hair, grey before his time. Dressed in uniform, he was attended by a Ranger – crisp, ram-rod straight, with a thick red moustache. The Ranger was walking beside and behind him as he slipped in behind us — in a wheelchair. He had no legs. He sat unmoving during The Last Post and Reveille. When it was over, there were beads of sweat on his forehead, drops of tears on the inner corners of his eyelids. His hands shook as he a sipped a cup of coffee. At the end of the formal wreath laying, he turned his chair and left as quietly as he had come.
I will remember him.