Friday, November 11, 2011

Rememberance Day

My grandfather was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, a farming community on the frying-pan flat Canadian plains, and enlisted in the army probably not long after World War II started, when he was 20 or 21.  Somehow he ended up in the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, a reconnaissance regiment based initially in Ottawa.  He was a radio operator, a small thin man who's nickname in his unit, according to my grandmother, was "The Preacher."

He was 24 when he was part of the invasion of Italy, this farm kid from a family of twelve, with a high school diploma who'd probably never been to a city bigger than Regina before Hitler invaded Poland.  The 4th Recce was very much on the front lines: The squadron commander described their operational procedure as "We keep driving until the enemy shoots at us. Then we know he is there."  He remembered lots of things that he never told his war-story-crazy ten-year-old grandson, among them racing the American army into a village so they could claim credit before the glory-hogging Americans got there with the cameras, and walking over carpets of dead German soldiers, and waking up in a ditch shared unknowingly with members of a Panzier grenadier unit who were persuaded into surrender by a German-speaking sergeant from Ontario.  And repeatedly being thrown into battle against elite German units, beating them, and having the English and American units "mop up" while the cameras rolled.  He told my grandmother these things, often during the persistent attacks of malaria he got when they first moved back to the plains.

The only thing I heard, directly, was that the olives you plucked off the trees while you were humping across some Italian hillside were extremely bitter, not like the olives you got in the stores here in Canada.

He was transferred to the 8th Recce after D-Day as they moved through France and Holland - he detested the French, loved the Italians and the Dutch, and talked even less about that part of his war experience than he did about the Italian campaign.  It was much worse, my grandmother said.

He married a woman from Glasgow, had a child, and moved her back with him to Canada, where they farmed for a while until he opened a MacLeod's general store in Vauxhall and ran it for years and raised their kids.  He retired after a heart attack and took up woodworking and the Masons.

My grandfather was the quintessential Canadian citizen soldier, a member of a unit that charged into battle first in an army known for its ferocity among its allies and enemies alike, an army that was thrown in when the massed forces of two world empires had failed to advance.  These volunteers fought harder than the German soldiers with their fanatical ideology, the British soldiers with their confidence of empire, the Americans with their violent origin story.  Then he came home with a Scottish wife, farmed, ran a business and raised a family and complained about the perfidy of the Americans and the French for the rest of his life.  One night when I was a teenager my grandmother and I watched a biography of T.E. Lawrence and talked about the history of the Middle East over a pot of tea after it was over, and my grandfather looked up from the book he was reading and stated very earnestly and innocently that the British Empire always treated people fairly and with honesty.

He died in 1993 from emphysema caused by the two-pack-a-day habit he picked up in the army and didn't quit until he was 50.  The war and getting emphysema were probably the two defining moments of his life, and they both scared the shit out of him. 

But he was an admirable man, in the ordinary courage of the life he lived and his fear of death.  Today I remember him.

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