It’s that time of year again. Remembrance Day is not far off. Not exactly a topic that naturally lends itself to a supposedly humorous column. But sometimes, funny memories of growing up in Leaside are relegated to the backseat. I think Remembrance Day is one of those times.
I’m part of the generation of Canadians who almost certainly had personal contact with veterans of the Second World War, and if we were lucky, perhaps even an encounter or two with someone who fought in the Great War. I’m not certain my two sons have ever met a combatant in either of those two conflicts. So it is up to us to ensure the next generation never forgets.
For some reason, Remembrance Day affected me deeply growing up. I was always moved by the ceremony we’d have at school, culminating in the moment of silence. We’d all wear the poppies handed out in class, often failing to elude the business end of the pin. My twin brother and I carried the flags up the centre aisle at our church during the annual Remembrance Day service.
A lump would always bloom in my throat when the names of the fallen were read. And is there a sadder, more forlorn and moving piece of music than The Last Post and Reveille played on a lone trumpet? I don’t think so.
And the poetry of Remembrance Day has stayed with me, too. For a time, I could recite In Flanders Fields by memory, like many other school kids of my era. But there’s a stronger familial connection to the iconic poem. My paternal grandfather, Dr. Leslie Clinton Fallis, whom I never knew, served in the Great War with the famous poet, Dr. John McCrae, who penned the poem in 1915. In fact, when my grandfather returned to Canada after his service, he brought with him the spur from one of John McCrae’s boots. Our family donated it to the Bytown Gunners Firepower Museum in Ottawa, where it is still displayed.
I even recall writing a Remembrance Day poem for extra credit in Grade 8 English class at Bessborough Drive School. I can still recite the first primitive lines: “November 11th is Armistice Day. A time for joy and a time for dismay.” Now you know why I ended up writing novels and not poetry.
I’m not sure what spawned my particular reverence for Remembrance Day. But it might have been Rob Cutts. He passed away many years ago now. But growing up, we’d see Rob Cutts every summer. He had a cottage down the bay from ours. He was a very big man, in every respect. He was kind and loud and boisterous, and had a laugh that echoed across the water whenever he visited. He was an amateur wood carver. A loon of his still sits on a side table at our cottage. Rob Cutts was also a veteran of the Second World War.
I have a vivid memory of him telling my brother and me what I’m sure was a very sanitized version of the story of his capture by the Germans in the Black Forest. Like most veterans of his generation, he was not particularly forthcoming about his wartime experience. And believe me, Rob Cutts was forthcoming about almost everything else. He was an inveterate storyteller. But in this instance, gently prodded by my brother and me, he sketched out a barely skeletal story of his time behind enemy lines. We learned he eventually escaped the Germans and made his way back to England. Despite the unbridled curiosity of two adolescents firing innumerable questions, he wouldn’t share many details. We never found out exactly how it happened. We just know that it happened. His reticence about the war was certainly not uncommon.
So, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, let us all — our children, too — don the poppy, and pause for a moment to remember the many Canadians — Leasiders, too — who sacrificed so much to protect the freedoms we still enjoy. It is the very least we can do.