Sunday, January 20, 2008

Bill Remembers -- For Nov 11

Remembrance Day was always very important to Bill. He always made it into a week long event by visiting with schools, Cub packs, Brownie groups, Sunday School classes and so on. But that is the end of the story. To understand why Bill did this we need to go back to the beginning, in this case the beginning is in 1941 when Bill was only 10 or 11.

Bill was the youngest of 8 children. His idol and best friend was his oldest brother Sam. Sam was twelve years older than Bill. In 1941 he was starting out on his own with a job and had just gotten engaged to be married. But, Canada was at war and Bill and Sam came from a family which put a high importance on serving one’s country. So Sam decided that he would join the army. Sam went off to basic training. After his training Sam came back home to be married. It was a time of great excitement. Sam got on the train for Halifax shortly after his wedding; from there he was going to get on a ship that would take him to England. Sam and Bill were both excited, Sam promised that he would bring back souvenirs and tell Bill all about the places he got to see. Bill was jealous but he was still too young to join the army.

For the first few months Bill got lots of letters from Sam who was training and drilling in England. There were a lot of rumours going around town that there was going to be an invasion of France soon but nobody knew for sure. Sam was also telling Bill all about the sights of England, he was able to visit the town where their grandfather had been born and meet with cousins who were still in England. Then the summer came and the letters didn’t come as often. Sam was busy but he couldn’t tell Bill what he was doing. One day in late August Bill was outside working in the garden when some men came over to visit. Bill didn’t recognize them but he just waved and kept on working. But as he worked he was suddenly hit with the sense that something was wrong. Bill walked towards the house and as he got closer he could hear his mother crying so he started to run. When Bill got inside his mom and dad were in the front room with the visitors. "Bill, come here for a moment" his father called. Bill went in and saw his mom crying and everyone looked very serious, his dad looked like he was crying too. Bill sat down. "Bill," said his dad, "These men have come to give us news about Sam." Bill looked at the men and suddenly felt very sick. "They have?" he asked. "Yes," his dad said taking a deep breath, "Bill, Sam’s unit was part of a force that was sent to invade a French port town named Dieppe. Unfortunately Sam’s unit ran into a German convoy in the English Channel. Sam’s boat was sunk before they got to shore. Bill, Sam is dead." Bill couldn’t believe this. Sam was supposed to go, have great adventures, collect some souvenirs, and come back. He wasn’t supposed to die. Bill couldn’t handle any more. He ran out of the house and hid in the garden shed for the rest of the day.

Time went by and the war came to an end. The men who had gone off to fight started to come home. As they returned, Bill would go and visit with them. Some of them came back missing an arm or a leg or blind. Some of them had been wounded but had healed with only the scars to show. Some of them had never been hit but certainly weren’t the same people on the inside. Bill would ask each of them about what had happened. Many of them had trouble talking about it but from the people who could talk about it Bill learned far more than he ever wanted to know. He heard of the horrors of an artillery bombardment, of the terror of running ashore at the landings in Normandy or Sicily, of the sickening stench of mud and blood and decaying flesh. Finally Bill stopped asking.

Some years later, Canada was again at war. This time it was in a place that Bill had never heard of, a place called Korea. Bill wanted to honour his brother’s memory so he enlisted and went over to fight. Bill actually did not see a lot of fighting but what he saw changed him forever.

When he got back Bill dedicated himself to making sure that people did not forget the lessons he and so many others had learned. He organized the local Remembrance Day celebrations; he made sure that the schools had people come to visit, he told his story whenever he could. As time went by this became more important to him. He could see that the younger children had a hard time understanding Remembrance Day because the war wasn’t real to them. Their experience of war was something in movies and games played on the playground. Bill did all he could to tell them what war really was. But there was something missing, something he knew he needed to do.

Several years after coming back from Korea Bill started going to church again. He had stopped after Sam was killed because it didn’t seem to matter. And then as he grew older he found that the church was important. As he went to church and read the Bible Bill began to get a picture of how God wanted the world to look. God’s plan wasn’t for people to fight; God wanted people to live together in peace. This struck home to Bill and he realized what he had been forgetting in his work around Remembrance Day. He had been forgetting to stress the importance that this never happened again. So he began to teach this to the children he met. He began to work for peace in his community, to lead protests against nuclear weapons, to call for more peaceful solutions to conflicts within his town, his country and across the world. So it was with sadness that he read of battles being fought in Cyprus, in Israel and Egypt, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, and so on. With each new crisis he strengthened his call for other alternatives. This, he realized, was what Remembrance Day was for. Not only to remember but also to prevent. "Never Again", he said, "Never again can we allow the price of human life to be worth so little as to send young men off to fight and die."

So now, each year Bill still helps to organize the Remembrance Day service, he still goes into the schools and churches and youth groups. He tells them about Sam, about the neighbours who came back from the war, about Korea, and he tells them that they have the power and the responsibility to change the world. And each year, in the afternoon of November 11 Bill returns to the cenotaph. Everyone else has gone home, all that remains of the service are the poppies and wreaths placed around the memorial. And Bill walks up to the cenotaph and reads the names carved into its face. He reaches out a wrinkled old hand and rubs his fingers across the bumps that spell out Sam’s name. With tears filling his eyes Bill drops to his knees and begins to pray for peace and for the loss of his brother and friends.

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