With Remembrance Day coming around the corner again I thought I would share a portion of what I wrote while flying from California to New Brunswick for my grandfather’s funeral. Gramp had been a medic in WWI and I think of him every year at this time.
The last I saw him, he seemed happy, and when I left, though he said we wouldn’t meet again, he didn’t cry as he did most times I had visited in the past few years. Before I left he handed me an author’s transcript of an interview he had given about the war.
When I arrived home I read the transcript, making comments about the long questions the interviewer had asked, “…and he wonders why Gramp didn’t answer, he couldn’t hear all that!” I could hear the interview as I read.
Funny, these were not the things I had heard about the war. I remember sitting in rapt silence as he told me the story about taking the draft horses down to the river to drink. “Each person had two horses, you see, and you would ride one and lead the other. Some boys used to try riding one foot on each, like the circus. Never did work but it was fun to watch. Then, once we were at the river we would just have to wait. You can lead the horse to water, but…”
I guess he told me that story because I was horse crazy at the time. I guess my favorite story was about the night there was a big storm…”All of the camp was tents, even the stable. Well, one night this big storm came up and it was a terrible mess. The tents were blowing down and the rain was driving hard. Well, the horses were trapped in the tent, they were tied up you see. Well, when their tent fell in on them it was quite a job to get them out. We had to turn them loose eventually. Rounded them up the next day, we only lost two.”
Until I read the transcript I knew little about Gramp’s real role in the war. I knew he had been a Staff Sergent with a medical corps, but as a child it never really sank in that my grandfather had struggled to save the lives of other young men and had watched many die, helpless to stop it. It must have been hard for him to think about those times.
I was so upset about putting him, ‘in a home!’ The Veterans Hospital was so sad, at least in my eyes. All of these men whose families couldn’t, or wouldn’t, care for them. Some were bed-ridden. Others picked up and moved into the hall every day where they were strapped into a chair to keep them from sliding out. This was no place for my grandfather! He wasn’t dying! How could we leave him here?
We visited him every week and it was very hard for us. I think we felt the irony of someone so mentally alive being in this sort of place. We settled into the routine though. Gramp would be sitting in the hall with his book and his pipe. When we came near he would look up with surprise and pleasure on his face. We would go into his room to visit. I would sit beside him on his bed, just being close. Gramp had been partially deaf since the war and we practically yell to be heard.
The joke which developed over the years he had lived with us continued. He always asked how I was treating the boys, and now I would chastise him for chasing the nurses. Of course this was just teasing. He was always a favourite of the nurses, I guess because he was so alive and quick-witted.
When I served in the band of the Ceremonial Guard on Capitol Hill I was so proud because I was doing something that would make Gramp proud.
When the phone rang at my home in California I knew what it was. In true Scott fashion both Dad and I were very matter-of-fact. Of course, what else could you do, he was gone. Somehow, though, it wasn’t real. I could have stayed at home, gone to work the next day, as if nothing had happened. After all, he would understand if I couldn’t get home for the funeral. But how could I say goodbye from so far away?
Gramp grew up in a rural area. He used to tell of the two-day trip to town to buy the supplies they needed. His village was gutted by a forest fire once. He told of fleeing the flames and how the community banded together at the house of a neighbour and lived on gingerbread and smoked meat.
He lived in beautiful, quiet times, save for the war. We have pictures of him at the beach with friends. What a striking young man.
He used to belong to the yacht club. Of course, he belonged to the Royal Canadian Legion. I was proud to play in the Legion backed band and participating in the cenotaph services on Remembrance Day was always very moving for me. It was a chance to peek into that other, brief period of the life of my grandfather and so many other young men.
We will remember them. We will remember them.