The true cost of it all

La Chaudiere Military Cemetery in France.

We arrived in the late afternoon. Shadows from an encircling grove of trees cast eerie slivers of light and dark across the manicured cemetery grounds – the grass cropped short, the flowers freshly tended. I watched one of my fellow travellers, Valerie Flanagan, move from one line of tombstones to the next. Our walk through La Chaudiere Military Cemetery just below the famous Vimy Ridge, a few days ago, was the culmination of a long journey for her. Then, she saw it – her grandfather’s grave.

“I’m so glad I made it here,” she said. “I didn’t know how I’d feel.”

Getting the message through

This week, we have witnessed two sides of the coming Donald Trump administration and its method of information distribution.

On Monday, the president-elect invited former opponents, friends seeking roles in his transition team and even TV executives to his New York White House, the Trump Tower in Manhattan. Nobody was allowed to report on the meetings. Everything, by agreement with Trump, was off the record.

The next day, Tuesday, the president-elect travelled across town to the offices of the New York Times, tweeting, “I have great respect for the New York Times. I have tremendous respect…”

Letter to an unknown veteran

The two women - l-r Kim and Monica - asked Canadian vet Harry Watts to pose with them for this photo.
The two women – l-r Kim and Monica – asked Canadian vet Harry Watts to pose with them for this photo.

There were two young women in his audience, suddenly captivated by what he had to say. He offered words of reflection, remorse and remembrance. Last spring, Harry Watts, in his 92nd year, had travelled to Holland to pay homage to his fallen comrades and to join in the festivities marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. During a commemorative event in the Dutch town of Baarn, Harry was asked to address the assembly.

“We were volunteers,” Harry told the thousands gathered in the town’s central park. “Because a lot of our parents and grandparents had come from Europe, we came here to, in a way, liberate our families.”

Acts of liberation

Veteran glider pilot Martin Maxwell and dispatch rider Harry Watts pause at the British Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, Holland (2015).
Veteran glider pilot Martin Maxwell and dispatch rider Harry Watts pause at the British Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, Holland (2015).

Early in May, 70 years ago, a Second World War glider pilot named Martin Maxwell tasted freedom for the first time in nearly eight months. On Sept. 17, 1944, during his second airborne operation, he had delivered British soldiers and equipment in a controlled crash landing near Arnhem, Holland, during the Operation Market Garden, only to be wounded and captured days later. But on May 1, 1945, with the Germans surrendering all over Europe, Maxwell regained his freedom.

“A British tank came into our POW camp,” he said, “and we were liberated.”

Pre-Remembrance forgetfulness

Landing craft from the troopship circle en route to Normandy beaches – June 6, 1944.

The conversation began much the way many of my chats with men of a certain age do. I got his birth date. The man told me he was born in January 1923. He quickly pointed out he’ll be 91 in the New Year.

Next, I asked about where he’d grown up and because he’d lived through the Second World War, where he’d served. He explained he’d been with the East Yorkshire Regiment on D-Day as part of the Operation Overlord invasion force.

I asked Geoff Leeming if he would be our honorary veteran at the Uxbridge Oilies Remembrance Tournament on Nov. 9 at the arena.

“Fine,” he said, “but you know I didn’t serve in the Canadian Army. It was the British Army.”

“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said. “You’re a veteran in my books.”

Sentinel of a century

Tree cutters arrive to bring down the maple on Balsam Street.

About a week ago, a friend up the street visited my next-door neighbour on a mission. With his pickup truck empty, save for his chainsaw and a can of gas, He began a day-long project dissecting the remains of a piece of history. A maple tree that had stood near the street at the corner of Ronnie Egan’s property for nearly a century had dropped too many dead or dying upper limbs to be safe anymore. So the township decided for the benefit of all concerned that the tree should come down.

“I cried the day they took it down,” Ronnie Egan admitted to me. “It was very sad to see it go.”