Sunday, November 15, 2009

When poppies fade

As a child growing up on military bases, remembrance day was a very meaningful event. Usually we would have a WWII or even a WWI vet recount the horrors of war. I recall being particularly alarmed when one vet told of seeing orphaned children running from their bombed homes. As a seven year old this was the stuff nightmares were made of. I remember crying in the classroom for those children. Our poppies were made of paper then and faded and dissolved in the rain.

On the base, there were parades and march pasts of the veterans. Most, if not all of the service men at that time, including my father were veterans. There were rows of them, in uniform on the parade squares as we watched and listened to the band play. I particularly enjoyed, and still do, the Scots regiment with their kilts and bagpipes and magnificent drums, played with flourish and flying feathered drumsticks. Being an air base, there was always a splendid air show with roaring fighter jets, and vintage planes. Were it not for the stories told to us by the veterans, one could easily believe that war was a thing of spectacle and flourish and bravado. The march pasts however, always caused a lot of emotion and tears in me because of what I had heard and also read by this time. The poppies were plastic and garish and poked you when you tried to put them on!

As I grew older, the march pasts were smaller and the WWI vets moved into homes and were in wheelchairs. As a young adult, the crowds at the memorial crosses became fewer and fewer. There were a few old men in tattered uniforms with poppies on their left breast. They saluted the flag as people just walked by. The 11th hour of the 11th day was a thing of the past, and irrelevant to many. The number in the march past was smaller and feebler. Our memories like the poppies were fading. For most individuals, especially when I lived in Montreal, the war was best forgotten. Never forget the motto of the veterans was a relic and one must move on and create the future without reference to the past.

It took our recent engagement in war and the reality of young people killed in action to cause people to retrieve their faded poppies from their kitchen drawers and speak to their children about war and watch documentaries about battles. Since that time, the crowds have increased as more and more people now understand that it is crucial never to forget. For many it became clear that we cannot have a meaningful future if we do not remember and honour the past. One of the reasons Eisenhower after he liberated the death camps took so many photographs and documented the horrors was simply as he put it "Because some day, some bastard will say it never happened" That was what was happening with our remembrances of war. No one claimed they never happened, but somehow they were forgotten, relics, to be dusted off like old medals but what happened then, could not affect us today.

This year, I watched the remembrance day ceremony on Parliament hill. There were fly pasts from jet planes, children singing the songs I used to sing in those ceremonies in the military base schools, but once again the most meaningful moment for me was the march past. There were so few veterans. There were no WWI vets. For them unlike those immortalized in Flanders Field, they did grow old and die, there were precious few WWII vets. There were many people at the ceremony many with fresh memories of their children or friends who had been killed in Afghanistan. I cried with the march past. I cried because I saw in the faces of the veterans living witnesses of the past. I cried because people had indeed forgotten, and once again we are engaged in war. Let us all pray that our poppies never fade!

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