Stitch in time

Royal Flying Corps aircraftman James Armishaw, in 1917 tunic tailored by Beauchamp & How.

First, they told me to stand still. For an hour. Then, a man I didn’t know except through my father ran a tape measure across my shoulders, down the length of my arms, around my waist and chest. A little later, when he needed a measurement down there, he ran the tape measure from my ankle up into my crotch. I kept on smiling even though, at about age 10, I had never done this sort of thing before. The man with the tape measure finally smiled and gave me a pat on the back.

“Ted, you’re going to love this,” he said, “your first ever tailor-made suit.”

Never again

Uxbridge Secondary School students pose in front of German gun emplacement during their field trip to D-Day beaches in France.

They all looked sharp in their specially tailored commemorative jackets. They responded to the atmosphere of being away from home on a field trip with not unexpected exuberance; they looked pretty pumped. But when several of them spoke publicly the other night in Ypres, Belgium, I could tell these teenagers had changed even in the few days we’ve been away.

One of them, Sam Futhy, a Grade 10 student from Uxbridge Secondary School, noted a visit to one of the Great War cemeteries.

“When I saw the number of grave stones,” he said. “I don’t know. It just hit me.”

To build a birthday party

The Confederation Train in 1967 - Tim Reid Collection.
The Confederation Train in 1967 – Tim Reid Collection.

As I recall, it was a summer morning. It might have been around the July 1 anniversary. It didn’t matter. That whole summer of 1967 had had a birthday feeling to it. In any case, I was just rising from a rare sleep-in. But even in my half-conscious state I remember hearing a sound in the distance. It was the diesel whistle of a locomotive approaching the level crossing in Pontypool, Ont., just south of where I was rising from bed.

“Daa. Daa. Da-da,” the diesel horn announced.

“What the heck is that?” I called out to my folks. And just as quickly as I asked, I realized that it was the first four notes of “O Canada” coming from that train whistle. About 15 minutes later, when I’d arrived at the station, where coincidentally the train stopped for a visit, I discovered it was the Confederation Train.

Monumental trauma

Speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer, left, and Minister of Veterans Affairs Erin O'Toole unveil Sam in relief.
Speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer, left, and Minister of Veterans Affairs Erin O’Toole unveil Sam in relief.

Sam helped Tyler make it through. But when he needed the same kind of assistance – nearly 100 years ago – there was no one there to help Sam through. Tyler Briley, from Port Perry, was in Ottawa last Thursday. The minister of veterans affairs was unveiling Briley’s latest creation, a wax sculpture of Sam Sharpe.

“It’s been a form of therapy,” he said. “I’ve just gotten well in the last year, in part, because of my work on this.”

Victories of heart and territory

Mother Canada mourns her dead: key element of Walter Allward sculpture at Vimy Ridge memorial in France.
Mother Canada mourns her dead atop Vimy Ridge memorial in France.

It’s not often a person walks in the footsteps of an ancestor. Nor are there many opportunities to sense the sights, sounds and smells that someone who lived nearly a century ago experienced.

Recently, I read about such an experience when I was asked to endorse an application by a member of our community for the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize. As part of her application, Rebecca MacDonald, 17, wrote about her great-grandfather, Walter James MacDonald, an engineer in the 13th Canadian Mounted Police who served at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

“Standing in the trenches and the fields of Vimy Ridge, I could feel his spirit,” she wrote.