An opportunity to remember
There are two interviews that I never quite managed to fully get, and perhaps this Remembrance Day you will have better luck than I did with your own family.
One was with my Dido Joe. He is my mother's father who came to Canada in 1926 and lived with us when I was a kid.
Dido Joe had a scar from a gunshot wound in his leg.
I would see the scar from time to time when he was lying on the garden lounger, his pants pulled up over his knees as he admired his tomatoes.
I used to imagine that the taut little circle of skin was winking at me.
I must have been around ten years old when I first pulled out the tape recorder and tried to get the story of his bullet wound on the record.
I sat on the floor in my parent's basement and dreamed of a story that would transport me out of the 1970's decor and into the war.
He sat in a chair above me.
I asked my Dido question after question.
Who shot you? Where did this happen? Did it hurt? Why were you fighting?
His answers came back in broken English, with some Ukrainian mixed in, but usually ended with the kind of wide smile that a grandfather saves for his granddaughter.
A smile that says, "why are you worrying about these things child? Go and play."
The old cassette tapes of those basement interviews are less than satisfactory radio.
I tried over and over to get more bits of the story as the years progressed and eventually enlisted my father to translate for me.
Grandfather served in the First World War
In 1917 my Dido Joe was seventeen years old. He told Dad that he was working in the field one day when he was approached by officers. They told him to put down his hoe and they handed him a gun.
That was how he went to war.
He said he never really knew who he was fighting for, he just followed orders.
Years later, when the war ended, Dido Joe found himself in another field, likely somewhere in Poland.
He was abandoned there with many other field soldiers who were told to find their way home.
A peasant with no privilege, literally lost at the end of battle. He had no idea where he was.
I cannot imagine it.
There were some family members that Dido Joe would never find after the war.
It's a miracle that he reunited with anyone.
As for the bullet wound, I never did find out how my grandfather got shot. But perhaps what I did learn from his story was more important than the battle details.
I learned why one of my most vivid memories of him is how he used to tell my sister and me over and over that family was the most important thing in the world.
No wonder he felt that way.
Second story from Second World War veteran
The second story is about my great Uncle Bill who was eighteen years old when he went to fight in the Second World War after three weeks of training.
Can you imagine?
I didn't know him very well except that every Christmas he would send us a card with the details of his war story.
He told the same story over and over but it never quite had an ending.
I remember being fascinated by it as a kid.
The letters were like reading pieces of a fractured experience that showed that my great Uncle Bill had a desire to share his story, but you always knew that there were details missing.
Details that likely shaped him until the day he died.
Uncle Bill had been trapped behind enemy lines. His letter told of being in a farmhouse and peering through a window and seeing German forces moving toward the building.
He realized that they were going to set up their field office in the house. The soldiers arrived. Uncle Bill hid. He hid in the attic for days, or maybe weeks, since this is the part of the story that he could never bring himself to recount.
I imagine him there, alone, and aware that any sound could end his life.
I cannot imagine what effect that kind of an experience would have on a person.
Uncle Bill survived the war and at the end was even part of the occupying forces in Berlin.
We visited him a few times in Yorkton, Saskatchewan and I marvelled at this huge man, standing six foot four, with the same bright eyes as his sister and my Baba, but with the largest hands that I had ever seen!
I bet he could palm a watermelon.
He was, however, the opposite of intimidating.
I recall him leaning down to talk to us as kids, like a gentle giant.
Today I imagine him in that cramped attic and I wonder how much of Uncle Bill really survived the war.
I have thought of him a lot this month during CBC's coverage of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how soldiers across the country continue to fight for improved mental health support.
I wanted to blog about these two veterans from my own family because they are now gone.
Questions change with time
I can't ask more questions about their war experiences.
In fact, if they were still alive I think I would ask them different questions anyway, instead of digging into every detail of their battles.
Today I would ask them how they define pride, horror, peace and honour?
I would like to know what they gained by going to war and what they lost.
Perhaps those are questions that you can ask your own loved ones this weekend leading up to Remembrance Day.
Especially since, unfortunately, we have so many veterans from so many different wars living here in Manitoba.
I guess it is a reminder that some of the most important history lessons live outside of our classrooms.
Let me know if you hear a great story.