When a Vimy veteran is your first Canadian landlord
"You have to hear it from one of the veterans themselves"
When Peter Twiss came to Canada with his wife Ida in the 1970s, the young Scottish couple was looking for adventure before they settled down.
Twiss was a family doctor, and found a job in Ponoka, Alta., about an hour's drive south of Edmonton. As he searched for his first real home in Canada, his colleagues told him about a man named Frank Young.
Young was a war veteran renting out a basement, and a good match for the couple, they thought.
It was a recommendation that would change the course of Twiss's life.
While living downstairs, the couple had their first child. By then their bond with Young had grown deeper than a landlord-tenant agreement. Falling into Young's orbit helped convince them to stay in Canada.
Young was a widower, and the Twisses treated him like a family, even after they moved to Edmonton. The kids — eventually four siblings — called him Papa.
"He was the genuine nicest guy," says Twiss.
A founding mythology
Young was also one of the Canadian soldiers who marched up the muddy slopes of Vimy Ridge under a blinding ceiling of artillery fire on April 9, 1917.
Thousands of men died. It was the first time all four Canadian divisions fought together as one unit. They succeeded in taking the ridge from German troops, where British and French soldiers had tried and failed before.
It's become one of our founding national mythologies: we entered the war as a colony, but by the end of that battle, we were a nation.
But when Young talked about the war, his stories were more personal.
He told them that before the war, he'd been working on his father's farm in Ponoka, and helping his dad build the railroad to Jasper. He told them that when the war broke out, he thought fighting in Europe couldn't be any worse than the work he was doing already. He told them how he'd hidden the fact that he was blind in one eye by peeking through his fingers during the military's medical examination.
It wasn't until 1987 — 70 years after the battle — that he really opened up on it, says Twiss.
"Up until that, I got a bit of things out of him. He spoke to my kids about it. But he didn't tell them the really awful things that happened."
The things you don't read about
Many Canadians see the battle as a great victory — the birth of a nation. Young's view was not so celebratory.
Still, Young and Twiss planned a trip to Vimy Ridge for the 70th anniversary, and Veterans Affairs ended up folding them into an official pilgrimage to the site. Young was 91 years old at the time.
While other veterans wore their medals or their Legion ties on the pilgrimage, Young stuck to his civilian clothes. In fact, he'd never worn military garb again after the war.
He believed he'd done his duty for his country, but he wasn't really a soldier by choice, just by circumstance.
As they walked through the trenches, Young told Twiss about the night before the attack.
The soldiers were set up on chicken-wire cots in the tunnels beneath the battlefield, but Young didn't sleep a wink. On each hip, he had a Mills bomb (a kind of grenade), and he was terrified that if he fell asleep and pulled the pin out of one, he'd blow himself up.
Maclean's interviewed him on the 1987 anniversary trip. "We've got to find some other way of settling things," he told the magazine. "You can't put men through that, you just can't."
For the first time, Young opened up to Twiss about just how horrific it was going over the top of the ridge in 1917. He was certain he'd survive, but he saw soldiers being ripped apart around him. A man beside him was disembowelled by a shell.
"That's not something you read about," says Twiss. "You have to hear it from one of the veterans themselves to appreciate that."
We've got to find some other way of settling things. You can't put men through that, you just can't.- Veteran Frank Young speaking to Maclean's in 1987
It's true that many of us in Canada have a hard time picturing how brutal the war was. For Twiss's young daughter Jennifer though, Young's stories stuck. She wrote a poem about her Papa, pencilling in tiny red poppies in the corner.
"This man was my Papa," she wrote. "His memories will stay with me forever, and forever I will remember."