I’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)