Our family’s association with the British Army goes back a long way and not all of my ancestors were lucky enough to survive combat.
A great grandfather was decapitated by chainshot in the Boer War, circa 1900, as an officer in the Inniskilling Dragoons, and more than one United Empire loyalist died in the flight of Englishmen to Canada when the American Revolution began. Others served in Wellington’s army, when Britain overthrew the might of the French. Furthermore, a distant ancestor was General Benedict Arnold, renowned chiefly for betraying a key British post to the Yanks.
Conversely, a grandfather in World War I won the army’’s Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery with the service in northern Italy. He was serving with the Gloucester Regiment and continued on with a fine career in journalism.
One of my brothers served for a time with the Black Watch and my sister married a veteran of the Queens Own Rifles.
My father served in the Canadian Army during World War II and we will never forget that. One reason was my birth, as a war baby in 1943, and another was the mysterious assignment that forbade his ever telling us what he actually did while serving overseas. A third occasion was his receipt of cash from the government in recognition of his service, from enlistment in 1939 to discharge in 1944.
Dad proudly wore a group of medals on his blazer as a member of the Royal Canadian Legion and I distinctly remember him marching down Broad Street in Dunnville, Ontario, as Legion president on Dominion Day.
But what I remember best was a lunchtime conversation he had with my sister and I in 1961, when he suddenly asked us, “Tell me, what have you done for society?””
All I could muster in my defence was brief service with the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, rising to the elevated rank of Leading Aircraftsman, and membership in our local high school’s 11th Grade class. My sister offered a small shrug, but in her defence, I should state that once she was a Brownie and was with us when we served in the Dunnville contingent of the Ground Observer Corps, scanning the skies for silhouettes of Luftwaffe bombers. Not one bogeyman ever appeared, but because we did this work on Saturdays, the Nazis had the weekdays free to sneak by us.
Bravely, I then asked my father, “What have you done for society, Dad?””
His reply cited his service to the community as a reporter for the Welland Evening Tribune and his experience in wartime. He also mentioned that in our life together at that time, he was paying the shot. The remainder of our lunch continued in silence.
Dad later left us, unannounced. My sister came home from school one day to find the apartment we’’d shared with Dad, empty. It was years before we saw him again. I like to think we all were reconciled in the 10 years we had left with him, before his passing in 1977. There were visits and parties and my brother wept when Dad slipped away. I couldn’t cry at all. I simply stared at walls for days when monstrous things like that occurred. Same thing today.
Dad had been the apple of his mother’s eye, the favorite of all her children. He graduated from high school during the Great Depression and like thousands of others, he rode the rails from coast to coast looking for a job, any job. Like most of my ancestors, he played the violin and loved a good joke. He wrote good news stories, listing the facts from great importance to least momentous: not like the sourball opinions that pass for news in today’s papers. He once served on the Dunnville High School Board and during one issue, a friend of mine in the teaching caste above my reach whispered that my revered Latin teacher had called my dad a chump, behind his back. I never told my dad that.
I’ve thought about him often, usually while shaving, because we resemble each other. In fact, the men of our family have looked like me all the way back to Confederation and beyond, and we have all spoken with the same voice and facial expressions. My son and grandsons all sound like me. One day in Heaven, I plan to sit down with Dad –- and everyone else -– over a coffee and a Whopper. I’’ll buy.
Was my dad a chump? Well, yes and no. My son succeeded after months of effort and finally obtained a copy of Dad’s military service record. It seems that during his time in the Canadian Army, he was recorded most often for his attempts at getting a medical discharge. After years of dedicated perseverance, he succeeded. His record was two inches thick, inside a manila folder – so much for what Dad did for society. But he did survive that terrible war.
My military record consisted mostly of membership in a Revolutionary War-era redcoat regiment, in which the most enduring and exciting thing I ever did was sit by a campfire and eat beef stew with my bare hands. The rest was all hoo-hah, but I did get to wear a wig.
Indeed, we’’re all chumps in the end.