Reflections from the husband of a Silver Cross Mother
November 11th 2000 started out in Ottawa Ontario, the capital city of our great country looking as if it would be a blustery, cold, gray day. Much like the visions that ran through my mind, visions and thoughts of the many young citizens who died on such days; gray nondescript days - where the drizzle and the mist melded into a sort of shroud encompassing soldiers in trenches, soon to become the history of a nation on a muddy battlefield, and the reason that today I, along with 15000 others would gather at the National War Memorial to remember them for their sacrifice in the "War to end all War."
My mind slips through the mud of Passchendaele and Vimy to the high mountaintop fortress of Monte Cassino, and a fleeting remembrance of a face long gone, that of Bob Gardiner, an old acquaintance who has died many years and memories ago. How old would Bob be now had he not fallen and broken his neck long after escaping the danger in Italy? Maybe 80 or 85?
World War Two. Why should I remember?
I was too young to participate in that epidemic of hate and horror.
Hell, I was even too young to join the many who left for Korea in the 50's, although I was old enough to be in the RCAF in 1956, and meet and serve with many who had been there as foot soldiers and now had re-mustered to the airforce. Or being in St. Jean Quebec at "Boot Camp" with several trainees, who seemed to me to be a little old for this "chickens- - -", an ex Merchant seaman by the name of Lofthouse, and a couple of others with the striped ribbons identifying Korean service whose names slip my memory.
Soldiers who had tried Civvy street and found it wanting.
Thursday 09 Nov. 2000
Carol and I arrive in Ottawa, her on the bus and me via AIR. Her mother is not well, and Carol is with her in Norwood Ontario, having previously arrived through the grace of the Royal Canadian Legion who have selected her to be the Memorial (Silver) Cross Mother for Remembrance Day 2000. I have come from Courtenay British Columbia via Air Canada, and after meeting Ted Keast of Dominion Command RCL at the airport, we travel to the Chateau Laurier to meet Carol and discuss the itinerary for the upcoming two days of events relating to and culminating in Remembrance Day.
FRIDAY 10 Nov. 2000
Rain and drizzle, yet quite warm outside the hotel as we all, Silver Cross Mother, essay, poetry and poster winners, and a smiling Paul Metivier - survivor of "the Great War", spry and active at 100 years young, wait in the hotel lobby to make our way to the first event on Friday. A visit to the Parliament buildings and especially to the Chapel, and to the place wherein lies the Books of Remembrance - The books that contain the names of the myriad of young people who gave their all, six books in all, First World War, Second World War, Newfoundland, South African War/Nile expedition, The Korean war, and recently the Merchant Navy.
This would have been a great opportunity for the Silver Cross Mother of the year 2000 to view her son's name in the Book of Remembrance for those killed in Canada's name while serving on United Nations Peacekeeping missions, but alas, there is yet no such book. After all, ( I think facetiously,) we have only been carrying out such missions and losing precious lives for approximately fifty years!
Seriously, I fervently hope it does not take the country as long to install this book in Canada's Capital as it took for the Merchant Navy to get recognized. While in the Chapel, Andre Boivin, the deputy Sergeant-at-Arms gives to Carol a beautiful framed selection of poems from the Speaker of the House of Commons, Gilbert Parent. We are to visit with the speaker later this morning. After taking some photos and listening to the excellent narrative of Mr Boivin we pass out under the gray stone Memorial Cross carved in the limestone and situated in the archway which allows access to the chapel.
I ponder the cross while passing under it; Just as, while later standing before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and observing the Memorial Cross depicted in bronze on each corner of the base of the tomb, bittersweet emotions stir my mind , and as I glimpse at the small silver cross on Carols chest under the bright red poppy, wistfully wish that the reason for these symbols of sacrifice did not have to exist.
At the same time I glance at Ernest Alvia "Smoky" Smith VC CM, Canada's last surviving Victoria Cross winner. I have been chatting with him extensively and my mind ponders his deeds and the very , very thin line between life and death; In awe that he survived his feat of heroism, and I think of his mother, long gone but obviously proud, and thank God that she did not have to receive the Memorial Cross because of Smoky's service.
Smoky knows only too well the significance of that Silver Cross, and he tells Carol so.
We traverse the halls of the majestic parliament buildings and arrive at the speakers room, where we are warmly welcomed by an elegant and friendly Gilbert Parent, the Speaker of the House of Commons, soon to be unemployed.
He has made time for us to be welcomed, and after a few stories about previous speakers and some anecdotes about the various trappings of the speakers room, Carol is invited to sign the guest book, and we depart for a visit to the house of commons feeling, and knowing, that we have just had a remarkable encounter with history.
Since parliament is not sitting, and the members are out campaigning for an upcoming election, we have The run of the house and take up positions in the seats usually occupied by the politicians. Carol sits in the giant speakers chair and I snap a picture. We go on to view the senate chambers, and shortly the tour is over as we all return to the Chateau Laurier much enlightened about our parliament thanks to the excellent presentation we have been afforded.
Media interviews in preparation for the ceremonies tomorrow are in order for Carol, and I make contact with a few radio stations and newspapers who want to talk to her about her selection as SCM, and her thoughts about why she is here.
At noon we arrive in one of the many rooms in the hotel to have a luncheon hosted by the Dominion President of the Royal Canadian Legion, Bill Barclay. Delightful dinner conversation and introduction of all the winners and escorts of the contests the legion sponsors each remembrance day. After dinner, plaques are awarded and Carol really cleans up! It is within the span of the 75th anniversary of the RCL, and so she receives a beautiful memento of this in addition to a sharp pewter crest of the RCL under which is an engraved plate , all nicely framed for display. Carol gives a copy of her Izzy Doll poem and two dolls to the RCL through Bill Barclay. Lunch has been thoroughly enjoyed by all and our meeting with many new friends from the RCL is appreciated.
In the afternoon at 4PM we arrive at the Canadian War Museum to begin a visit with the staff and tour the facility. We are met by Alain Gauthier, an old friend of ours who we have met and talked to previously when a display of our son was part of a special exhibit called Well Meet Again at the War museum in 1996/97. I take the opportunity of this tour to revisit the display of Mrs.Woods of Winnipeg, reportedly the first Silver Cross Mother, and photograph the haunting picture of her standing by the Vimy War Memorial in Jul 1936 at the dedication of this grand edifice.
She had twelve sons and was awarded eight silver crosses, one for each of eight of those sons killed in the first world war, the war to end all wars, and the irony of the picture taken in 1936 is not lost on me, having the great advantage of hindsight to enable me to see that three short years later Canadas Sons and Daughters were once again on their way to distant lands to lose lives in the name of Canada, and to provide silver cross mothers for a long time in the future.
On the Wall in the peacekeeping section of the Canadian War Museum, close by the Iltis (jeep like vehicle) that two of our peacekeepers were nearly killed in after having been shot up by Serb rebels in the former Yugoslavia, displayed as it was received from the unit in Yugo with over fifty bullet holes slammed into the back and windows, there is a large mural on the wall. Part of the Schiebel industries sponsored display of landmines and landmine detection tools, the mural is of two soldiers sweeping for mines.
Rather , one soldier is depicted standing and holding a mine detector - earphones on and intently sweeping the ground, while the other soldier is kneeling in front and to the side of him as if preparing to prod the ground where a signal has been encountered.
In 1996, while visiting the War Museum and offering some artifacts from Marks tours to them, I was accompanying Mark Reid, museum exhibit planner on a stroll through the peacekeeping display and as we walked by the mural, I said to Mark Reid There is a picture of Mark on the wall! As far as I know, neither Mark Reid nor Schiebel industries had any idea of the significance of the picture they had selected to portray sappers at work in their display.
I explained this little story to our group of young winners and their escorts, noting their intense interest at having the opportunity to interact with someone who was directly related to a display in the museum.
Carol received a nice plaque from Angus Brown of The friends of The Canadian War Museum, who had previously given her an honorary life membership in the group, and Alain gave her a book, The Canvas of War on behalf of the staff.
We returned to the hotel and had a good rest, anticipating the hectic pace of tomorrows events.
Nov 11 2000
It is cold this morning. I look out the window of the suite down at the cenotaph so soon to be inundated with people - Veterans and visitors, wreath layers and onlookers, Choirs and bands and marching troops from all over. There is a stirring of people getting ready, checking out where they will stand, laying the red carpet that Carol and others will soon traverse to lay a wreath in commemoration of countless acts of heroism and sacrifice.
Carol and Smoky Smith VC, and myself will soon be picked up in an official car and be spirited across the few hundred Yards to the red carpet, where we will exit the vehicle to the applause of literally thousands of onlookers.
We walk up the carpet toward the center of the cenotaph floor where the greeting line will form.
Smoky and I go to our respective places to await the ceremonies to begin. Carol and her escort Ted Keast remain, and soon the PrimeMinister of Canada and his wife arrive to take their place in the line. Lastly, Her excellency Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and her husband his excellency John Ralston Saul arrive and they chat momentarily with the members of the greeting line. Soon the line is complete with the Chief of the Defence Staff and Dominion President etc, and the ceremony is underway.
I am fervently trying to capture images with my digital camera, at the same time trying to stay warm and not get in the way of onlookers. I am perplexed at the appearance of several over-coated individuals who peer this way and that, facing the crowds, knowing that they are a necessary part of the security of the high profile persons my wife is at present in company with, yet feeling a sort of resentment that their services are needed, and feeling that I would rather they were able to concentrate on remembrance instead of security.
The Choir sings, the wreaths are layed, the Colour Party prepares to lead off the parade of Veterans, the speeches are short and meaningful, and the tears flow easily in great amounts.
Another Remembrance day ceremony will be well documented by the TV cameras and all will be able to view the occasion for years to come.
We move off towards the dais where the Governor General will take the salute, and I stand in the line along with Carol and all the others to take pictures of the march past. We are to go to a dinner hosted by General Baril the CDS at the Warrant officers and Sgts mess right after the ceremony and my mind drifts to past remembrance days I have participated in, and as I look at the crowds and the marchers I feel I know why I am here, but in wonder at the empty feeling in my heart, a feeling that there is something missing, and that although there is a crowd of 15000 here today, it is still a desolate and lonely place for me. I think of soldiers long dead, and with a startling abrupt shock, I realize the reason for my feelings.
I remember a son, my own son, lost to war. Not my countrys war, but another country far away from this day in Ottawa, just as countless others have lost loved ones in past conflict. And the son I remember will not be coming back to his family and wife, and nothing we do, nothing we say can change that. There is an uneasy feeling in my gut, a feeling that somehow this is not enough, this one day of remembrance, and I have to do something, albeit I do not for the life of me know what, to rectify this situation, to cry out loudly that we must always remember, not just today, and I think what the Hell, nobody who is not directly involved really gives a damn.
The dinner is enjoyable, as all receptions have been this Remembrance day. Carol is presented with a book by General Baril, and from his wife comes a silver Maple Leaf and a hand painted silk scarf for Carol. An Izzy Doll is presented to the Mess, and time flies quickly.
We are to be at Rideau House for the Governor Generals Tea at 3:30 in the afternoon, and a vehicle from Her excellencys garage picks us up and whisks us to the venue. We have a good visit and tour of the facilities, and we feel very honoured and pleasantly surprised at the very sincere way in which we are all greeted by their excellencies. Carol gives two Izzy Dolls (a boy and Girl Doll) to the Governor General, and she promptly with obvious great insight tells Carol that they will go to her Godchildren. Carol and I are both pleased to hear this, as this is what the dolls are all about, children receiving them and enjoying them. It is for children they are made, and children they were given to by Mark, and it is our hope that all dolls eventually make their way to these most deserving of recipients.
Many other incidents and happenings have occurred during our stay, and if I have missed any of great import I apologize. I also apologize for not including everyone who we met in this little account. In my opinion it is not the acknowledgement of players that is important, but that the players are acknowledged as a team. And a fine team it was that provided Carol with a lifetime of memories for this Remembrance day 2000.
In my estimation the most important part of the whole scenario did not play out until the morning of the 12th Nov.
Carol was to return to Norwood to be with her mother at 1 oclock in the afternoon. I was to catch an aircraft at three, then to Toronto and onward to Vancouver and home to Courtenay.
Carol had been Guest of Honour at A Tribute to peacekeeping, a concert featuring the Central Band of the Canadian Forces and the Air Command Pipes and Drums which had been organized by Marlene and Ken Miller, and they arrived at the hotel to deliver us to our respective places of departure.
Before they arrived, much earlier in the morning, I had peered from the sixth floor suite down on to the Cenotaph, now replete with wreaths from all walks of life and organizations, and I thought to myself that I should get a few pictures of the area now that it was free and open. There were perhaps a half dozen people in the early morning sunshine looking at the wreaths.
I sauntered down to the cenotaph, and still feeling a bit of self-induced anger at thinking that it would be 364 days till most people would once again care about this place, I began to view some of the wreaths and wonder at the huge bronze figures on the cenotaph brazenly defying the ravages of time and weather. The Legion volunteers had begun to pick up the wreaths and I asked where they were going. They were to be displayed at several cemeteries and schools. I thought this was a nice gesture. I took a few pictures, and the first of three events to change my mind about my cynical view of humanity and remembrance took place.
I was sitting by the Tomb of the unknown soldier watching two teen age boys, undoubtedly the scourge of all us over 50 years old, as they skate boarded along the now not so busy roads encircling the cenotaph. I could see they were preparing to cross the grounds from one side to another, and I thought to myself;
"Could they not find some other flat expanse of concrete to skate on?" "Did they have to play on this area that was just yesterday blessed with Veterans and onlookers in Remembrance?"
To my amazement they stopped short at the very point that the red carpet had been just yesterday, the very point where Carol and others had walked the carpet to lay the wreaths of Remembrance, and there they each picked up their skate board, and proceeded to walk, and walk solemnly I might add - glancing briefly and respectfully at the tomb of the Unknown soldier - across the concrete until they reached the other side where they placed their boards down and noisily resumed skating the streets. This from two young devil may care boys, their ballcaps turned incongruously backwards on their heads, their baggy pants making one wonder they could walk, let alone skate the board with out getting all tangled up in a heap. A twinge of hope permeated me briefly.
Immediately after this phenomena, while I was still in semi shock at what in had just witnessed, a Jogger, hell bent for election, came streaking across the cement. The cynicism of my mind abruptly kicked in, and I thought to myself "Hey You, old enough to know better; Could you not find some place better suited to your morning Jog than this sacred place"? No sooner had the thought formed in my mind than this jogger , having arrived directly in front of the Tomb of the unknown soldier, stopped as if having been shot. He turned to the tomb and replete in sweat suit and sweater, with toque covering his ears and almost his eyes, He saluted the Tomb and turned to continue his jog, disappearing on the other side of the cenotaph where the teen age boys had gone! This whole episode took perhaps two seconds, yet it seemed to me to encompass time enough for a whole ceremonial event. And indeed it was a ceremonial event.
I left my place of repose by the Tomb and wandered over to the Cenotaph proper, which now had been stripped of all wreaths and looked barren and foreboding yet majestic. I slowly walked to the side opposite the tomb and took a few pictures of Carol
waving from the sixth floor suite, a tiny little figure in a window high above the streets of Ottawa, framed in a window in one of the pillars of the castle that comprises the hotel.
Continuing my way around, I spied on the cold hard granite of the steps surrounding the cenotaph a rose that I thought someone had missed when picking up the wreaths and objects of remembrance that had been layed. I had three pictures left in my camera and decided that this was about as good a picture as any. I stepped over to the rose and noticed a card laying under the single stem of the deep blood red flower. I read the card, then took the pictures as tears welled up in my eyes, knowing that what I was reading and experiencing this morning was what it was all about.
The card reads:
IN LOVING MEMORY Nov2000
I miss you today more than these words can say. We are here now as a family and as a country because of your love for us, because of your courage, I will never forget what you did for us.
I Love You.
This short visit to the cenotaph on the day after remembrance day was obviously meant to be for me.
I no longer feel despair, and I no longer feel anger. I am still greatly saddened at the loss of our son, and sad at the loss of our citizenry from past wars, but I am overjoyed at having experienced this morning, knowing in my heart that if the actions of individuals I witnessed this morning are any indicator, the memories and respect shown by these three incidents ensure that remembrance will be strong, sincere, and meaningful in the future.
Brian Isfeld Courtenay BC
Nov 15 2000