Tuesday, November 11, 2008



We take Remembrance Day more seriously than when I was a boy, although I grew up in the long, awful shadow of war.
But then Canadians take their holidays more seriously each decade. Even Halloween has become a major occasion. Perhaps because we got rid of Sunday as the pause day. Now we search for an excuse to retreat from the world, if only for those terrible two minutes.
As an editor, I always wrote about our wars and tried to do my best for all the families who were changed forever. But it never matched those who had heard the brazen throat of battle and did not flee.
Farley Mowat is a egotistical twit but he wrote a wonderful war book called And No Birds sang. Once I worked with a bomber pilot named Jim Emmerson who, as I said in my farewell at his funeral, could look at his typewriter keys and find his soul. There is a yellowed Telegram clipping in my basement treasure trove where Jim wrote about returning on the last raid of the war and seeing the plane off his wing crash into a Belgian hill. His friends burning as the first victory bonfires began.
The fact that Canadians, bless 'em, now honour Remembrance Day more than a few decades ago, and that the young have taken to it with zest, came home one tearful evening when I watched the Remembrance Day memorial at Richview Collegiate on TV. The entire school gathered in a huge circle around the Etobicoke school, teachers and students holding hands, and high on the roof, my son Mark played the Last Post. The tape is stored with Emmerson's clipping.
We live across from Sunnylea Junior School, which was designed by the famous architect John Parkin (who helped finish City Hall after the creator died.) It was supposed to be the model for elementary schools in Canada but is now just another 60-year-old school. My sons know each creak in the floors, and now two grandsons use the same classrooms that their father Brett once squirmed in.
And so each Remembrance Day I find myself in Royal York United Church for the service that the school holds there. It does heal some aches. Matthew, the 10-year-old grandson, is part of the junior singers and the choral speaking group, while Mikey, 9, is part of the audience, After all, he says, someone has to listen.
The parents arrive early to get a good photo location before the teachers arrive like mother hens shooing chirping chicks. And it all begins after the principal speaks - if only my principal had been that pretty - with a lusty singing of O Canada. I have a friend, John McDermott, who does a magnificent job on our anthem but it doesn't match the hearty singing of the kids from Sunnylea. (I do have a quibble. The anthem goes down on the last line, not up. That's the way Calixa Lavallee wrote it, and since I have a minor connection to that Quebecer, since he's the ancestor of my daughter-in-law Marie, I don't like tinkering with national anthems, especially those Americans who look on the Stars and Stripes as a musical experiment.)
When I was in high school and the Korean war was somewhere on the other side of the world, I figured war was inevitable, what with bomb shelters and the Cold War. So I decided to pick how I was going to fight and joined the RCAF Reserve. I became a radar expert, which didn't help me with speeding tickets.
So that gave me a taste, since for some around me, war had been their textbooks. Then in 1958 I joined the Toronto Telegram and I was a kid surrounded by veterans, including the graceful Emmerson. The air force and the Tely vets certainly reinforced my respect for those who fought and died or were maimed forever.
I used to think in the early 1970s as a columnist that Remembrance Day would become minor under the fire of the politically correct and the apologists of the CBC. For those born in the 1930s, like me, who were too young to fight, it still hung over us like a spectre. As the depression did.
But Remembrance Day has blossomed like a field of blood-red poppies. For a time it seemed we were going to end, as the legless veteran in Eric Bogel's great song And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, wondering who was going to be left to march.
But Afghanistan has put an end to that. The country has moved from a rainy day subject for desperate editorial writers to a killing ground for our sons and daughters.
The service at Royal York United ended with the kids singing Let there be peace on earth. It was beautiful. And as their voices bounced off the plain red-brick walls, I wondered how many of the parents around me were worrying about how in 15 years or so, these kids might march off to war, again.
I thank the heavens that my three sons didn't have to face the world war that I thought was inevitable. Now I have to worry about four grandsons. If only history didn't repeat itself.

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