Friday, November 11, 2005

Remembrance Day, Year of the Veteran

I grew up not having much interest in war or Remembrance Day. This was in the Reagan 80s, the days of 99 Red Balloons and Culture Club's The War Song -- when "war" meant only World War III, global nuclear annihilation. I sort of understood the "never again" message, but since that was the extent of my understanding of war, the whole November 11 thing got misunderstood as some sort of celebration of war. I didn't really feel compelled to investigate further. It kinda turned me off. I wasn't interested in learning more than I knew, which wasn't much.

Then I got assigned a story for Remembrance Day in 2004. I was asked to do three reports summing up Canada's military contribution. Well, that ended up being a crash course in history. I forget who I interviewed, but I learned a lot in a short time. I started learning more as I learned about my girlfriend Amanda's family tradition of marking November 11. Her dad was dying, so she was heavily emotionally involved in the event on that particular occasion.

Some months later, I got another assignment. A Second World War vet's Victoria Cross was going to be auctioned off. The school he attended in Toronto decided to help raise funds to prevent that from happening. Jan DeVries, President of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Association, addressed the kids at the school and helped them -- and me -- understand why this was a big deal. Eventually they got the money.

Talk got around to a long-dreamed-of trip to Europe timed to coincide with two other couples' trips, to meet up and have a great time. Amanda said it'd be neat to visit the D-Day beaches in Normandy if we could. I figured, sure, that'd be interesting. After all, there was a really touching cell phone commercial a while back in which a guy called his grandfather from Dieppe and thanked him for everything. That always made me a little teary, so I figured we might as well, if it could be done.

So the Europe trip approached, and I started watching documentaries. There were plenty on, since this year has been the Year of the Veteran. I watched Saving Private Ryan. Those frightening hours playing the video game Medal of Honor were put into context. I came to appreciate even more that this war wasn't just war for war's sake, or war to make a point, or war for oil or money or destiny or ego or whose president had the biggest dick. This was serious business.

It became even clearer when we went to the Musee de L'armee in Paris, and learned more about how close the Nazis came to winning. This wasn't a matter of Good easily stomping out Evil. Evil had a pretty good chance at taking over. Evil had its shit together. The good guys were idiots at points. Good needs to smarten the hell up sometimes. The same week, we went to the big parade down the Champs-Elysees to mark the 60th anniversary of VE day. It made everything seem a lot more serious.

My folks graciously fronted some money to rent a car, so we drove to Normandy to see the D-Day beaches. The Juno Beach Centre laid it all out in Canadian historical terms -- what the country was up to while Hitler and his gang were stomping around, why it took so long to get involved, and what Canada put up to do its part. It became more than just words on a page, or facts from long before my time, or the sad stories of old people. It all gelled, and became deadly serious.

We stepped out of the Juno Beach Centre and onto ... Juno Beach. There we were. There's where it happened. There's where all the documentaries and movies and books and lectures came to be real, real, really real. German machine gun bunkers, still there. Rocks and stones and shoreline and water as far as I could see. The same water that was full of ships and shrapnel sixty years earlier. The same sky that was full of planes and airships. Calm and beautiful now, but the scene of some nasty stuff, and a place that changed history.

We moved on after gathering stones for some friends. We quickly got lost on the narrow roads of Normandy, and pulled a right turn in search of restroom facilities and a place to reorient the map. But there were Canadian flags off in the distance, so we moved ahead, and found the Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. We spent a good long time there quietly looking at the graves. So many dead people. And we'd stumbled upon it by accident. Another serious moment.

From there, it was off to search for Arromanches to see the Mulberry Harbours. More massive and spectacular reminders of what went down. We stayed a few minutes and headed off to Omaha Beach, known as "Bloody Omaha" -- where the nasty stuff in Saving Private Ryan happened. Well, that wasn't quite as impressive, as it's sort of touristy now. And the American war cemetery was closed. And it was getting dark. We had to head back to Paris. That's a whole other story, but I'm sure having absorbed so much history and gravity didn't make that leg of the journey any more fun.

So, to the present. I've been here in Halifax since late September. We're not even unpacked and settled completely. I haven't quite found my groove yet, and I don't know enough about the city and its history. I do know that this is a military town and always has been. There are men and women in uniform everywhere. There are ships in the harbour. There are bases around the city. There's a cannon that fires every day at noon from the old fort at the top of the hill outside our apartment window. It's Remembrance Day in the Year of the Veteran, and Amanda lives here with me. Her dad died early this year. She wanted to go to the ceremonies, and I wanted to go with her. Luckily, we both had the day off.

It was my first time at one of these ceremonies, as far as I can recall. It was a cool breezy morning with some cloud but much sun. Lots of people showed up. But there weren't a lot of wrinkly old veterans there. Sure, hundreds of them left on a special Via train for Ottawa two days ago, but there just aren't as many of them around any more. They aren't here to tell their stories. They aren't around to tell people that their battles weren't necessarily like the battles we hear about in the news today. Their fight wasn't to prop up the profits of Halliburton, or to show the world who's boss, or to keep the homeland in fear in an effort to keep them from realizing there's nothing in government to inspire them. Their fight was to keep badasses with evil intentions from taking over the world -- something those badasses actually had a good chance at doing.

It was good to see so many people show up to pay their respects. I'm glad I was there. And I'm glad I could be there not just to be there, but with more appreciation than ever before of why I was there.

For a photographic retrospective, check my Flickr pages, over on the right-hand side.

Peace!

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