As a boy in Winnipeg, it was a day when I could show off in my boy scout uniform for all the girls, and we got the day off from school; so it was indeed a memorable time. But exactly what and who I was to remember on November 11 never was clear to me, even when it was carefully explained by parents and teachers.
For I was never there in the carnage at the Somme, or Normandy, or Vimy Ridge, although my grand dad was, and my unknown, martyred Uncle Bob who gave up his life jacket for a fellow torpedoed sailor, and who died for his act. Yet still, I was to feel something for at least the soldiers who never returned home, men who meant nothing to me, even when they were my own kin.
And so our annual Remembrance Day service was for me the same kind of showy pretense that I received every Sunday in church, where I was to mourn the tortured Jesus and rejoice in his victory over the grave, even when I never knew the guy.
And yet over time, I sensed some deeper wisdom in the pretense. For we do carry a collective memory of our dead, greater than any one of us; and from our earliest times, we have honored our fallen simply by recalling them, and keeping alive that which neither blade nor bullet can destroy.
That said, it was all still hearsay to my pre-pubescent self. Every November 11, I was expected to believe the stories of my elders, and share their grief, and memories. And with the absolute blessing of our local clergyman at Westworth United Church, who always held his own Memorial Day service, I was also to know without a doubt that the slaughter had all been very necessary.
I believed it. Like most other boys, I looked forward to each November 11. For how easily was I caught up in the thrill of the bagpipes and the drums, and entranced by the brotherhood of belonging displayed by all the aging, uniformed veterans who still stood so firm, together, in a devotion that none of us ever knew in our crowded, daily lives. I was being recruited, even then, but into what and by whom I still did not know.
“I’m just glad you’ll never have to go away to a war” my mother would say to me, like clockwork, at the end of every November 11 as she tucked me into bed. I always felt so let down by her words, and by her ignorance of what was stirring within me.
At six years old, and at twelve, I dreamt of battle, I played war, I organized all the local kids, girls included, into squads and recon units that probed the local neighborhood for shelter, and the right terrain for battle. I always stood poised on the edge, holding myself in readiness for an engagement that everything in me strained towards as if my very soul depended on it, which as it turns out, it did. And yet never did I know why I was so.
During our summer trips to my grandparent’s place in Edmonton, I’d sit at the kitchen table and listen again and again to Grandpa Ross’s tales from the World War 1 battlefront.
Gramp would speak of trench raids against the Germans, of the long, cold nights and all the lice, but also of his first Christmas eve in Belgium in 1915, when he and the enemy met beyond the wire and shared songs, and cheap booze, and promised not to be the first ones to resume the shooting.
The comradery with the krauts must have worked, Grandpa used to chortle to me from behind his pipe, for two years later at Vimy Ridge, a German soldier saved his life during battle, enduring capture by the Canadians to carry in Grandpa’s wounded and unconscious self to his own lines, and safety – and allowing me to be born.
I always cried when Grandpa told that story, just like I did when our family spoke so reverentially of young Uncle Bob and his self-sacrifice for a stranger. And it was to that innocent place in my own heart that I always went during every Remembrance Day service, recalling that which I could not possibly have known, if memory was simply an individual thing: that the highest calling of the warrior is not conquest, but sacrifice; not assault, but heroism and integrity.
I have been blessed throughout my days to have never been relinquished by that knowledge, and to allow it to take me to the graves of many innocents who have been slaughtered in domestic wars, and find there a remembrance of these unknown ones who must be remembered.
The unhealable pain of any war, and why there never are victors, is that the first casualty is always our own innocence and best hopes. And that realization struck me with a vengeance last month when I stood for the first time over the mass grave of children at a place paid for by us, run by us, and hidden by us.
Veterans can rarely return to the battlefields they survived, and where their own hopes, and buddies, lie buried. And nor have the survivors of the longest war in human history – the one we have waged against indigenous peoples – easily come to those graves where more than 50,000 of their little relatives lie. For we, who put them there, have not yet remembered our own story, and honor, and thus we have not the courage, yet, to stand there with them.
It will come, one day, but only when we truly remember that which cannot be, and yet which must be; and somehow, in the remembering, change.