Remembrance Day is the time to remember those who fought for our freedom. My father was a Second World War veteran. He served in the air force in Gander, Newfoundland until the back of his skull was smashed against the roof of his plane during an accident on a surveillance flight in 1943. He spent months in a coma and was discharged with a metal plate in his head. He could never fly again.
I asked him why he had volunteered. His answer was that Hitler represented a threat against humanity and civility and everyone faced a choice — to look the other way or to fight. And, like most young people of his time, he believed that his choice mattered more than his life. He believed that he could make a difference and that belief is what won the war.
On Remembrance Day, I try to think of the men and women who gave up their way of life, who put their dreams and hopes on hold and who died in the fight for freedom. I try to put myself in their shoes, to imagine them with human strengths and frailties.
Imagine an 18-year-old boy signing up for a war he knew nothing about, doing so out of a sense of duty and honour. Think of him the week before he left home, noticing the leaves changing colour from the cold nights of fall, or watching the wind whip across the lake, blowing the waves into whitecaps as a storm approaches.
The day his ship sails, does he stride up the gangplank with any regrets? His sister and mother wave to him from the shore, hope and fear fill their eyes. Nobody said what they were all thinking — “Will this be the last time our eyes meet?” He wouldn’t know what the next day had in store for him, let alone the coming months. His hope is his only comfort as he watches his country slip away in the distance.
Or picture a man who was too young for the First World War and older than most of the men headed into the second. He leaves the embrace of his wife and children as he boards a train heading to the coast, where he’ll meet a ship that will take him to Europe. He’s finished basic training and is on his way to the front. His chances for survival are slim but so too are his options. He goes because he couldn’t hold his head high as he watched the younger men leave for the war. He wasn’t at ease in his home thinking of what they had to endure.
The newspapers fill him with rage. He loves his life and is afraid, but he now gets a sense of strength each time he puts on his uniform. He looks down at his children waving to him from the platform of the railway station and he smiles. He wants them to remember him with a smile. His eyes meet his wife’s. They are filled with tears because she knows why he smiles.
Or think of the woman whose brothers and husband have left for a war she is barely a part of. She works in a factory making munitions while her son is in school. She wants to do more. She is alone in a world with very few men. She notices the emptiness in her world but tries to keep busy with her job and her son. She works as hard as she can and wonders if the bullets she makes will keep her husband safe. She believes that they will stop the Nazis from gaining ground, and this keeps her going. She cries every night once her son is in bed. She tries not to despise the men who have stayed behind.
She waits, writing to her husband every night. His letters come sporadically. They stop and she knows something is wrong. She gets a letter from him that was lost in the mail; it is months old, but she reads it over and over again every night.
One day, a black car with two uniformed men stops in front of the house. The tears start flowing before she has opened the door. She will go on, her life forever changed. She learns to cope with the loneliness, and her husband fills her dreams. She sleeps in his shirts until they fall apart. The war ends, her son grows up and with each passing year he becomes more like his father. When he boards the train to go off to college their eyes meet; he has his father’s eyes and she is overwhelmed with the memory of the last time she saw her husband. She will cry again that night.
And remember the man trapped in a prison camp, separated from his family in the middle of the night by authorities who don’t recognise his humanity. He remembers gunshots and screams but does not know if his wife and children are alive or dead. He works every day moving piles of sand from one side of the camp to the other. The camp is full of men, women, and children. But his world is little more than hunger and emptiness. The sun on his face has no warmth. The guards treat them like animals but he knows they must do this in order to separate themselves from their captives and live with their atrocities. He tries not to think of his life as it was, but it haunts him. He dreams of his past and is afraid to lose hope because without it he will lose his sanity. At night he works with others to dig a tunnel beneath the fence. They are caught and he takes responsibility for it. He stands in front of a firing squad on a sunny day and for a brief moment he can feel the warmth of the sun on his face.
With these thoughts I remember those that gave their lives to the war — men and women who lived and died with honour