Adding a chapter

Alex Barris’s ID card when he was 21 years old and at war.

On my last day of classes in 1964, with nothing left to teach us, my Grade 9 phys-ed instructor just gave us a bat and a ball and told us to go play some baseball work-ups. I loved playing shortstop, the position my dad liked most too. Not long into the game, however, the catcher and I chased the same infield fly and we collided head-on. I broke my nose, lost some front teeth and was knocked out cold. I spent several weeks recuperating at home in bed. My father happened to be writing in his office at the house, so he spent time trying to distract me from my pain by telling me stories. It wasn’t long before I popped the big one.

“Hey Dad, what did you do in the war?” I asked.

Hammers, nails and words

Writer’s garret.

It was a few weeks after summer had officially begun. I was up in my writing roost – a.k.a. my upstairs office. With the start of summer, I had just started writing a book. I’m not being presumptuous. It’s often what I’ve done over the past 15 or 20 years – I’ve taken the summer to complete a manuscript, I hope for publication soon after the summer is done. Anyway, I heard an SUV pull up next door and a man stepped out and began assembling his survey equipment. I asked him what was going on.

“They’re going to start building here,” he said. “They’re just waiting for this survey.”

The German who served Canadians

Rene Thied in 2013, listening to Canadian veterans recall their role in the liberation of Sicily.
Rene Thied – art historian, tour guide and lover of life – seemed eager to learn more every day.

Like it did millions of other Europeans, the Second World War changed Rene Thied’s life. Born in Hanover, Germany, following the war, Thied first learned about the Holocaust while he attended Ann Frank Schule, a grade school in Hanover. Even as a boy, Rene was appalled by what the Nazis did during the war.

“I couldn’t live in a country that had done such a thing,” he told me years later, “so, I decided to leave my home country.”

Today, November 11, Canada’s annual Remembrance Day, I will try to pay tribute to as many Allied servicewomen and men as I can. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet and interview perhaps 6,000 vets of the two World Wars, the Korean War, U.N. peacekeeping and Afghanistan. Many of them are top of mind today.

We are all Syrians

Greek Line S.S. Olympia
Greek Line T.S.S. Olympia in service from 1953 to 1974.

My sister and I made it our business to arrive in the theatre aboard the ship before most other passengers. We loved the idea – especially on rainy days during our Atlantic crossing – of getting the best seats from which to watch the Hollywood movie screened that afternoon, a new one every day.

But this day, when we got to the theatre, most seats were filled with other passengers. The Greek Line ship on which we were sailing – the Olympia, bound from Athens to New York City in the summer of 1964 – had recently stopped at Naples. A large number of Italian passengers – we sensed they were immigrants – had come aboard. Anyway, when my sister and I entered the theatre this day the woman in charge of ship orientation was scolding some noisy children among the immigrant passengers.

“Be quiet!” she scolded with a thick Greek accent. “If you do not behave, I will throw you away!”

Credit where it is due

Ken Lardner, a veteran I encountered by accident. His service in the Royal Canadian Regiment during the Korean War has largely gone unnoticed…until this weekend.

It seemed just another typical Saturday morning at the coffee shop. Kids pointing at the donuts they wanted. Adults craving that first cup. A local by-election candidate had even set up shop at a corner table to bolster his door-to-door canvassers with coffee, donuts and a pep talk. But near the door, I spotted an older man wearing a blue baseball cap with a Royal Canadian Navy logo and the name “HMCS Toronto” emblazoned on it.

“Navy veteran are you?” I asked.

Cannot tell a book…

When I met CBC Commissionaire Don Nelson, I had no idea he had been a commando (much like these Canadian troops) during the Korean War.

The first time I went to the local chiropractor’s office, I arrived early and got caught up on some National Geographic stories. Then it was time for my session and I prepared myself with excuses. I expected a barrage of questions, such as, how long had my shoulder been bothering me, what previous treatment had I undergone, and why had I waited so long to deal with it. But that wasn’t the first thing Dr. Peter Begg asked me.

“Where did you get all your research for that Vimy book of yours?” he said.

Making memory permanent

Today a tourist trap, Checkpoint Charlie between 1961 and 1989 trapped East Berliners inside the Iron Curtain.
Today a tourist trap, Checkpoint Charlie between 1961 and 1989 trapped East Berliners inside the Iron Curtain.

During a college class the other day, I wanted to give my broadcasting students a sense of the power of television as tool of influence in the 20th century. I chose something in their lifetime – the fall of the Berlin Wall – in 1989. That’s when the Western media began covering the activities of dissidents in East Germany, I said. And that sparked the popular uprising that pressured the Communist regime to open crossing points at the Wall. To make sure my students understood the context, I asked if everybody knew the basis of the Cold War.

“Was Canada involved?” one of my students asked.

Making Remembrance Day instructive

Outside the Southwold community centre, the sign invites participants to the annual Remembrance week service.
Outside the Southwold community centre, the sign invites participants to the annual Remembrance week service.

Just before I delivered a Remembrance talk in the southwestern community of Shedden, Ont., last Sunday morning, I walked along the back wall of the Southwold Township Complex, where I was to speak. There were perhaps 500 people waiting for the township’s annual pre-Remembrance Day observance to begin.

And standing politely along that back wall, so that older citizens – principally veterans and their spouses – could have seats, were about 20 young army and air cadets. I made a point of introducing myself to them and learning who they were before I spoke.

“I’m 18 and in the Elgin Regiment,” one of them announced proudly.

“And why did you offer your part-time service?” I asked.

“I wanted to say something about my generation,” he said.

Honoured company

D-Day veteran Don Kerr with Ted Barris, enjoying the reception following the presentations of the Commendation, July 27, 2011.
D-Day veteran Don Kerr with Ted Barris, enjoying the reception following the presentations of the Commendation, July 27, 2011. Photo courtesy Kate Barris.

I walked among heroes, last Wednesday morning – eighteen of them. Several had fought in the Second World War. At least one was a veteran of the Korean War. A number had helped keep the peace in the Middle East, Africa and the Asia. Several others had served Canada as reservists. Almost all were veterans from a theatre of war or world hotspot. But nearly all – after serving Canada in uniform – had accomplished something more that had caught the attention of the Minister of Veterans Affairs.

“After serving,” Minister Steven Blaney said at a recognition ceremony on July 27, “[these] veterans have continued to provide outstanding service to their country, communities and fellow veterans.”

Remembrance and the vote

"The Canadians held on and won at Kapyong because they believed they were the best men on the hill that night," author Dan Bjarnason writes in his book. "And they were right."
"The Canadians held on and won at Kapyong because they believed they were the best men on the hill that night," author Dan Bjarnason writes in his book. "And they were right."

It was just over a decade ago, as I recall. We were on the eve of a different federal election. The membership of the local Royal Canadian Legion had asked me to address the Remembrance Day banquet. I chose to acknowledge veterans of a forgotten war for a forgotten principle. At the branch, that night, was friend and veteran Bud Doucette. I recognized him and those other Canadian volunteers who fought in the Korean War to uphold the peace charter of the United Nations.

“I felt very proud,” former Lance/Corporal Doucette told me that night. “The war and our service have gone pretty much unnoticed.”