On Remembrance Day I think about my Grandfather Lester Schmidt and the few stories he used to tell us, his grandchildren, about his experiences in World War II. He never served on the front lines but he did provide supplies for others in the war. He used to also tell me not to get old, it was hell. This comment still makes me smile, like any of us have a choice. Les dies many years ago and he passed away while sitting in his favourite chair. I did not have the chance to say goodbye but I am glad that I did learn more about him after living with him and my step-grandma, Marjorie, for a year in Calgary. If the Oral History Archive project had been around while he was alive, it would have been very interesting to have heard his more detailed stories and to have added them to The Memory Project. I am of the generation in which people say we are in a war and my life continues as normal. War is an experience that happens in other countries, is a ceremony we have every year at this time, it is a museum I visit whose exhibits I view, an thing with a name that is remote and distant. Others, who are Canadian and from other countries, have experienced more personal journey's through war. My hope for them today is that through remembrance, thoughts, tears, we can find a place closer to peace and farther away from war.
I also wonder about my grandfather Lloyd Bates. He died due to suicide the year before I was born. From the stories I have heard through family, he bore the physical, emotional and psychological scares of war, and in the taking of his own life, I wonder if those issues were ever resolved. What supports were there in the 1950's for returning soldiers, nurses and doctors? Who was helping those with the yet unlabelled issues of PTSD? How many others needed help and did their best to make their way in life as best they could?
I have memories of my father asking me if I wanted to go to Flanders Fields every November, when my family lived in Brussels, Belgium. Every year I remember saying yes. On one particular Day of Remembrance, we approached the fields of crosses, row on row, but could not see due to the hovering fog. As we quietly approached the ceremony area, a trumpet began playing the Last Post, and as we slowly approached the song we began to see shapes of people, crosses and the gathering remembering those who had fought and died, as well as those who had lived. As a pre-teen I did not understand the broad scope of the ceremony, the graveyard, the uniforms, the sacrifices, the years of repair, but I am fortunate to have had parents who took me to a place that have provided me with a personal connection to an historic place.
After the ceremony, large planes would fly by and drop thousands of poppies across the graves of the dead. The children, including myself, would jump and run about collecting as many poppies as we could, but there were always too many to hold. One year the wind was not taken into consideration and during the first fly-by the poppies landed on the highway next to Flanders Fields. On the second fly-by, the poppies landed on the graves. I would like to attend this ceremony again some time during my life as it is burned in my memory and to compare a childhood experience to an adult experience would be interesting.
While living in London (almost two years ago) I took the opportunity to go on a guided tour of France's northern World War II sites. We visited the D-Day Beaches, the towns first liberated in 1945, memorial museums, and cemeteries. It was mind blowing as the guide's knowledge was incredibly extensive and he provided us with a two hour lecture of information as we bused from London to northern France. It brought the previous stories I had heard, the museum exhibits I had visited, the people I had met who had been part of the war all together and connected to a place. Here were the craters 60 years later, the cannons, the now clean beaches of operation Overlord, the remaining buildings and pieces of history that the French have left in place to remember. If you ever have a chance to visit these places, please do. The type of experience that causes you to think deeply and with great care. Another opportunity to remember and attempt to understand.
|Standing in one bomb hole at Point du Hoc.|
Bomb holes all around this entire field close to the cliffs of beaches.
|The American Cemetery at St. Laurant|
|Juno Beach where Canadians first landed.|
The first tank to have landed that became stuck and
remains as part of the museum collection.
|Pegasus Bridge, the first bridge to be liberated |
between Caen and Ouistreham, in Normandy, France.
|Utah Beach, one of the locations where thousands of soldiers |
who had just crossed the canal in tightly packed ships that landed
and begin the land attack in hopes of ending World War II.
|Arromanches, Gold Beach, the remains of the temporary port |
built by the UK government and its Allies as part of the liberation.
PS. Listening to CBC's The Current and five grown men just started talking about what they cry from now after having been in a war: Tim Horton's commercials, kitten and Kleenex adds, one man just said he cries all the time. Love it. Men letting down their 'tough guy' guards and enjoying a moment honesty.