I live in a small northern prairie town where the cenotaph is equally small, but the crowd around it at 11:00 this morning was proportionally large. A trio of RCMP officers in red serge stood at attention, their stance steady and unwavering even in the freezing temperatures. County law enforcement officers with white gloves tucked smartly into the belts of their dress uniforms stood barehanded next to cadets with green berets and rosy cheeks. Bareheaded volunteer firefighters in bulky turnout coats formed four tidy rows. The only uniform item for the rest of the gathered assembly was the single red poppy pinned over each heart.
Most of the solo performance of the opening “Oh Canada” was drowned out by a helicopter flying overhead. Random voices from the crowd rallied to strengthen the final refrain as the chopper faded in the distance. The trumpet player battled a cold mouthpiece and freezing valves to keep the notes of the “Last Post“ clear and strong. The main speaker had to pause for several looong minutes as three rumbling diesel engines shuttled a lengthy train of frac-sand cars down the track too close by.
Was it a flawless Remembrance Day ceremony?
No, but it was a remembrance.
We remembered lives that were sacrificed so that we could live in a community where helicopters flying overhead don’t wield guns or missiles, and where trains carry grain and pipe and sand – all necessary to the livelihoods of many of those who live here.
In the midst of all the noise, we stood in silence and remembered.
And I reflected on my great uncles Harold, Earl, and Paul who enlisted in order to serve their country in the fight against the Japanese.
Harold survived the Bataan Death March and three years in a Japanese POW camp in Manchuria, but I suspect that his life back at home was forever changed by his experiences.
Earl joined the Navy at 18, fought in Manchuria, was captured by the Japanese, and died of scurvy in a POW camp in the Philippines.
Paul, a Marine, died when his battalion was attempting to capture a small but strategic island in the Pacific. He died trying to help others to safety after they had to abandon ship. He was 19 years old. He was buried with other casualties somewhere nearby, but his remains were only recently identified and returned for a full military burial next to his brother Earl in their home town of Belen, New Mexico.
I wonder now how my grandmother felt about losing two of her younger brothers to the war. She would have been a 29 year-old mother of two sons and two daughters, her youngest son less than a year old when news of her brother Paul’s death would have arrived.
I can’t imagine how my great-grandmother felt. I know she wrote many letters requesting the return of Paul’s body. I wonder how she would feel if she knew that her request has finally been fulfilled, one month shy of 75 years since the day Paul died in the service of his country on some small island an ocean away.
I never knew any of my great uncles, obviously, but I have been deeply touched by their stories, by the news reports and images of the return of Paul’s remains – the dignity and respect that have been afforded his memory and his sacrifice.
I am grateful for all who fought and died for the freedoms we have. I am grateful for those who never wore a military uniform but risked their lives to protect and save others during the wars.
But I’m afraid that perhaps we who have always known freedom and never known war have turned that freedom into a free-for-all license to pursue personal gain and pleasure. I’m afraid that we have too easily forgotten the cost of our freedom. It is a staggering cost, affecting generations of families and communities. We need not only to remember, but also not to cheapen the cost by trivializing our freedoms with self-serving agendas. Too many have paid too great a sacrifice for that.
Lest we forget.🌺