Early in 1943, the military planners in London, England, coped with the ebb and flow of the Second World War, but they did so secretly. Squirrelled away in his tiny office at the British War Office, an experienced Canadian-born artillery officer grappled with a logistics problem about an upcoming military operation. But the stress proved overwhelming for hm. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t focus. To switch his mind off before bed, he tried reading detective stories. Then, he tried something completely different.
“I set up a fly-tying table,” Charles Falkland Loewen wrote in his memoirs, “and before going to bed sat down to tie a fly or two. I found that this absorbed one’s complete attention … and really unbuttoned my mind from current problems.”
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.”
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.”
The man sat at the back of the audience area through most of my presentation. I spoke, as I usually do in those situations, walking among those in the audience, in this case 30 people seated at about eight tables. My topic was the Battle at Vimy Ridge coming up to the 100th anniversary next year. And I was speaking at a small Ontario fair last weekend. I could see the man was reacting to what I had to say. He frowned a lot and when I’d finished he put up his hand.
“Is it true that all the French-Canadian troops threw their rifles overboard on the way over to France?” he asked.
I paused a second, wondering where he was going with the question. I didn’t want to think there was prejudice involved. “No. I don’t think that’s true, since one of the key regiments at Vimy was the Royal 22nd from Quebec.”
An acquaintance of mine told me about the night he met up with a music legend. For weeks, before Paul McCartney’s most recent concert stop in Toronto, my acquaintance and his partner debated whether they should part with the cash required to get into the Air Canada Centre to see and hear the former Beatle. My friend said they vacillated over the expense. Then, realizing they might miss an opportunity to see and hear the creator of such landmark songs as “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude” and “Live and Let Die,” the couple gathered as much cash as they could, dashed to the ACC, but arrived after the concert had begun.
“The scalpers were there with a few last tickets,” my acquaintance said. “But with the concert already underway, I guess they figured they’d better unload the tickets.”
We had been sitting inside our TV crew van for about 15 or 20 minutes, waiting. We weren’t about to venture outside until things were ready for us. Meantime, my co-host – Lee Mackenzie – and I, rehearsed what we would say. We wanted to make sure, the moment our producer called for us to speak our lines in front of the camera, outside, that we could deliver the introduction to our TV show in one take (without any mistakes). Why? Well, our camera location was on a hill overlooking Fort McMurray, Alberta, in wintertime. The temperature outside our van that day was about –40. Eventually, all was ready and we dashed outside, took our spots, rolled the video and spoke our lines.
“Hi, I’m Lee Mackenzie,” she said.
“And I’m Ted Barris,” I said. “Welcome to ‘Monday Magazine’ from Fort McMurray…”
It was just a few minutes to go. Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, the author with whom I was sharing MC-ing duties (last Friday night), and I, were trying to organize visuals for our combined presentation about historic aviation moments. We were about to co-host the launch of the LitFest 2014: Edmonton’s annual non-fiction festival. The audience was all seated in the venue now, the Alberta Aviation Museum. She tried to get all our images to register on her computer. I tried to get them to register on mine. But we couldn’t get one laptop to talk to the other.
Early in the celebration of Bill Cole’s life, last Sunday afternoon at Wooden Sticks, his son Rob talked about the periodic disconnect that had existed between himself and his late father. Rob said he thought it was much the same as the disconnect between Bill and his father, First World War veteran Thomas Clark Cole. But Rob admitted a reality that many sons and daughters do.
“I was astonished,” Rob Cole said. “The older I got, the wiser Dad seemed to become.”
When my veteran friend Stephen Bell came home from war in 1945, he only weighed 97 pounds (when he enlisted in 1940 he’d weighed 180). In ’45, military doctors conducted a short debriefing. They didn’t ask him about his eardrums, broken during the battle at Dieppe where he was captured in August 1942. He still had shrapnel in his back and because the Nazis had shackled him while he was a POW, his wrists were arthritic.
“I was eventually placed on 100 per cent pension,” Bell told me back in the 1990s.
Stephen Bell, who died at age 85 in 2009, didn’t have much good to say about his military experience. On Aug. 19, 1942, he’d been part of the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France, where more than 3,500 Canadians became casualties. After his capture there he spent the rest of the war in POW camps in sub-human conditions.
“If it weren’t for my arthritis I would be in great shape,” Bell told me 20 years ago. He added, however, that he had “a lot to be thankful for.”
Today, he and many of his Second World War comrades would be appalled by what’s gone from bad to worse in the public service of Canadian vets. Next Monday, an Opposition motion in the House of Commons will attempt to block a money-saving measure by the federal government to close Veterans Affairs Canada offices in eight Canadian communities. The Conservative majority will defeat the motion.
Ironically, had Stephen Bell sought assistance today in his native Saskatchewan, where the Harper Conservatives plan to close the Saskatoon office, he would have had to travel nearly twice the distance from his home to seek VAC attention.
Last month, when a group of contemporary veterans arranged a meeting with Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, he arrived late, got into a shouting match and walked away from the vets who were attempting to dissuade the government from closing VAC offices in Sydney, N.S., Thunder Bay, Windsor, Corner Brook, N.L., Charlottetown, Kelowna, B.C., Brandon, Man., and Saskatoon. Fantino symbolically abandoned those he’s supposed to be serving.
During the Great War, Grace MacPherson had a confrontation with the man she was serving. A Vancouver volunteer in the Red Cross, she wanted to drive ambulances behind the front lines at the Western Front where the Canadian Expeditionary Force prepared to take Vimy Ridge in 1917. To make her case MacPherson secured an interview with the Minister of Militia at the Savoy Hotel in London, England.
“I’ve come from Canada to drive an ambulance,” she announced to Sir Sam Hughes in the meeting.
“I’ll stop any woman from going to France,” he said. “And I’ll stop you too.”
Grace MacPherson accepted his judgment and went back to work in the Red Cross office dispensing pay chits to Canadians on leave in London. But she never gave up hope to serve closer to the action. Coincidentally, conditions in France superseded Sam Hughes’ resistance to MacPherson’s idea. The war office decided that men in the ambulance corps could better serve the war effort closer to the front, so the driving jobs were re-assigned to women volunteers. Grace served a year and a half loading wounded into her ambulance, driving them to aid stations, while maintaining the ambulance’s engine and repairing its flats… all for a paltry 14 shillings a week.
“Didn’t matter,” MacPherson wrote in diary. “I was most proud of the Canadian patch I wore on my shoulder.”
Veterans are like that, I’ve discovered. They recognize the realities of their service. Even if they don’t agree with decision-making, they live up to their responsibilities. They have a high regard for punctuality. And above all they never let down their peers in the service of Canada. It’s the credo by which they live and die. Apparently, such qualities are tougher to find among those administering Veterans Affairs Canada.
By the way, a few weeks after my Dieppe vet friend Stephen Bell left the Toronto office that had discharged him with a clean bill of health in 1945, he collapsed on Bay Street. X-rays revealed that he had both pneumonia and pleurisy. He spent the next 17 months in and out of the Christie Street Veterans Hospital.
“After six months, I was called (to a Toronto army office) for a review of my health. I told them I felt fine most of the time, so my pension was reduced to 10 per cent. … It didn’t bother me that my pension was cut off. I could make it on my own.”
Most veterans – then or now – would exhibit the same kind of fortitude. They can and do suck it up. If they have to they can make it on their own. But like Stephen Bell then, veterans now need the help they’re entitled to – close by, uninterrupted, unchallenged by politicians or bureaucrats, unsullied by fiscal conservatism and its shortsighted view of Canadian values.
Part way through B.J. Byers’ concert last Saturday night in Uxbridge, the young pianist finished one of his toughest pieces – an etude by Chopin. He wiped the perspiration from his face with a towel, smiled broadly – as if he had just conquered Everest – and acknowledged the packed house at Trinity United Church.
“There was once a time, I wouldn’t have been able to face this,” Byers said. “I would have just turned and run away.”