November 11th, 2018

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Next Sunday at 11 A.M., the Western World will collectively hold its breath for a silent moment in a frail attempt to remember a war that human memory has now forgotten.  It’s been 100 years since the guns went quiet at the end of The War to End all Wars, and there are no veterans left.  No one who heard the guns, smelled the blood, tasted the fear or touched the dying.  They are all gone, and it’s up to us and those who come after us to remember them.  Not for their deeds or their politics — but simply because they lived and endured in a time that we must never, ever, ever repeat.

So, once again, I have a very simple story.

One hot summer day when I was a young man, I paused in front of the World War I cenotaph in Hedley British Columbia.  It’s a single grey obelisk about two metres high.  I’d seen it many times before but never bothered to stop.  On that day in the glorious sunshine, its weathered grey was bright and warm and dry. There was no breeze in the drowsy afternoon, and no sound, just settling puffs of dust at my boot heels.  No one was there but me.  There were four or six or maybe even eight names etched at the base (Hedley wasn’t a very big town in 1918.)  I touched the stone where the names were cut and read them to myself.  These were men my age — sons and brothers.  They had looked at the same mountains I saw that day; saw the same creek wandering down to the Similkameen River.  They’d played games on that street, run and laughed and learned how to talk to girls.  They were in their time what I was in mine.

Every year on November 11th, Remembrance Day, we pause for a moment.  We touch the names cut into stone.  Every year, I remember that I’ve forgotten those names.

Remembrance Day 2017

remembrance

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day.  It’s impossible to imagine 50 thousand dead bodies; thank God, our minds don’t work that way.  We have words for it, though — carnage, slaughter, butchery.  We try to understand.  We look at photographs of mud and blood and hollow haunted eyes and wonder, not so much how, as why.  Why the hell would anyone let this happen?  And then there’s that strange, weary sadness the spreads through us like a stain.

War is a million statistics, collected and bound in regret.  We’re lucky that the numbers are too big to comprehend.  But here’s the truth of it.

There’s a gravestone in France.  It’s polished white and tidy.  It sits in a field of thousands just like it — in the rain, the wind and the sunshine — and nobody knows it’s there.  But once there was a woman, young enough to dance and flirt and sing in the garden.  She knew where it was.  She could find it in her sleep — and often did.  And every year, while the politicians wore poppies and laid wreaths and swore by all their holy books they’d never do it again, she took the early train.  She walked the gravel path.  And she sat on the cold November grass and ate lunch with her tall, handsome husband.  Once, in the rain, she swore and cried and cursed his selfish adventures.  And, once, there were children, schoolgirls who pointed and whispered, and she wanted to warn them — but their teacher herded them away.  And once she got a letter on fine white paper that asked if she would come and lay a wreath on behalf of “all the Widows and Orphans,” but she wrote back politely that, with regret, she was busy that day.  And every year, year after year, the train ride got a little longer, the gravel path got a little steeper and the cold November grass got a little colder.  And every year, year after year, she remembered what nobody else did — that once there was a girl who was young and in love, and once there was a boy who loved her, and together they liked to dance and flirt and sing in the garden.

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, as we honour our veterans and rededicate ourselves to forever end the carnage, the slaughter and the butchery — please remember — that there’s a gravestone in France.

Remembrance Day 2016

remembranceI’ve seen a lot of war memorials in my time, from the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor to the Eternal Flame over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.  They’re all very much the same – structures cut out of quiet stone, asking us politely not to forget.  In Great Britain, every crossroads with a church and a pub has a cenotaph to World War I because that’s where those boys came from.  In France, there are rows and rows and rows of white gravestones because that’s where they ended up.  If you’ve ever seen them, you can never forget.

One hot summer day when I was a young man, I paused in front of the World War I cenotaph in Hedley, British Columbia.  It’s a single grey obelisk about two metres high.  I’d seen it many times before but never bothered to stop.  On that day in the glorious sunshine, its weathered grey was bright and warm and dry. There was no breeze in the drowsy afternoon, and no sound, just settling puffs of dust at my boot heels.  No one was there but me.  There were six or eight or maybe even ten names etched at the base (Hedley wasn’t a very big town in 1918.)  I touched the stone where the names were cut and read them to myself.  These were men (boys?) my age — sons and brothers.  They had looked at the same mountains I saw that day; saw the same creek wandering down to the Similkameen River.  They’d played games on that street, ran and laughed and learned how to talk to girls.  They were in their time what I was in mine — young and strong and full of the beauty of  the world.

Every year on November 11th, Remembrance Day, we pause for a moment and try, in silence, to touch names cut into stone.  And every year, I remember that I’ve forgotten the ones I held in my hand.

(Original version published in 2011)