observations and opinion
Remembrance Day, 2015 – 10:30 a.m.
In the car this morning, when we realized my daughter was poppy-less on her way into school, I quickly yanked mine from my coat and handed it to her. “Thanks” she said, pinning it to her school sweater. “Sorry about that.”
It was fine. I would be able to get another in the lobby at work. But from that point forward, until I reached my office, it was me who was poppy-less. In the car it was no issue but, after parking and beginning the short walk from there to the elevators and up to our office, I felt like I had forgotten my pants. The thought of being seen without the red felt flower, on today of all days, was dreadfully embarrassing. I was naked on Remembrance Day. When the elevator doors opened I rushed right for the little white box of poppies and quickly stuck one on my lapel. Whew, that’s a relief. Only then could I go back outside, to walk down the block for my coffee.
With our national war memorial only a block away from my office, the street – even around 8 a.m. – was buzzing with uniformed women and men, beginning to cluster at the memorial site. Almost everyone wore a poppy. TV cameras and steel security fences surrounded the memorial. A bus load of yellow-jacketed police officers unloaded on the curb. Soon the road would be a mass of humanity, squeezed between buildings and spilling down side streets, to hear the sounds and (if very close or lucky) catch a glimpse of the solemn service. Children will sing, guns will fire, memories will flash back a year to the terrible days soldiers were slain in October 2014. Then the service will be over and people will, slowly, shuffle away and back to their real lives. Some time today or tomorrow, they’ll unpin their poppies.
At the heart of our official national remembrance is a minute of silence. There are 525,600 minutes in the average year and we allot precisely one of them to the silent acknowledgment of those who sacrificed their lives in the military service of our country, and by extension, in the service of western civilization (for which Canada fought). For those of us who have not lived and worked under military discipline, or in peril of our lives, far from the love and comforts of home, it is almost beyond imagining what our sailors, soldiers, airmen and others endured – and still endure – in the course of duty. The punishment, physical and mental, inflicted even by non-combat conditions is a price most of us simply will not pay.
Last week I attended dinner with some members of the Canadian military. At our table were young cadets – two women and a man, in their early 20s. They were impressively well-spoken, informed and of course, perfectly turned-out in their red uniforms. The young woman beside me, all of 22, has 9 years left as part of the commitment she made to become an engineer and an officer in the Canadian Forces. She loves it, but school is far from home and life in the barracks sometimes lacks in charm. The Forces knows this and so finds volunteer families, near the military college, to adopt these kids on weekends. My dinner companion had no complaints about life in the Forces but lit up, talking about the family who occasionally takes her in and feeds her a home-cooked meal. Military life has rich rewards and clearly develops one’s character, but even in peacetime, there is no pretending it is easy.
Hard circumstances often give rise to resilient beauty. The poppy is a bright and showy annual but also tough, its stem bristling with unfriendly hairs. It bursts out of broken soil, as it did in the blood-soaked battlefields of Flanders, catching the poet’s eye. A century later, we wear the poppy in remembrance of military sacrifice. But we also wear it also as a signal to each other, of silent passing shared sentiment: we owe a debt, and we know it, and we show it. Without words.
Words often don’t work, to truly describe war. As a boy, I was anxious to hear tales of battle and my Uncle Billy was the one combat veteran I knew. Billy was a very young Scot when he joined up in World War II. He was a soldier, and he was a well-spoken man who doubtless had many stories to tell. But when I asked him, “what was the war like, Uncle Billy?”, he explained it to me in the most direct and simple fashion possible: by refusing to talk about it. This was a little disappointing, for a lad, but also instantly evocative: I understood how bad the war must have been, if he could not speak of it.
In a sense, that was my first real moment of silence. Billy lived a long and splendid life, and I never again bothered him with questions about the war. But I remember him and his sacrifice – his youth and his memory scarred more than words would allow – each November 11th. Like my fellow citizens I am so deeply blessed to live the legacy of his sacrifice, and of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many on our behalf, it is hard to know where to begin, what to say or where to end with it.
So instead at 11 a.m. on this Remembrance Day, as on all that have gone before, I will say nothing. I will be silent. And I will let the poppies speak for me, once again.
Ottawa, Ontario – Canada’s National War Memorial ceremony November 11, 2015