In honour of Remembrance Day I thought I’d repost this bit about family, war, and my gratitude for the veterans who sacrificed so much.
“You remember your Uncle Leonard, right?” My father asked. “Oh, yeah,” I replied.
“Well, he was in Belgium during the war. He was wounded, shot in the arm. He lay there for six hours before they came and got him. He almost bled to death. His arm was never the same; he had a piece of the bullet in him for the rest of his life. The field doctor did a pretty good job, though,” my father said.
On that day
he was a bard,
and a hedge-school teacher.
He was seventy-five.
We were in a Calgary hotel room, on the fourteenth floor. It was Sunday of the May long weekend. The rain had been coming down in fat, hard drops most of the afternoon; during supper we heard thunder. This was ghost story weather.
My father continued: “After he was wounded he was taken to England to recover in a hospital. They had no windows, just cardboard where glass should be. And the Germans–Uncle Leonard thought they made their bombs a certain way to terrify the enemy. They’d make a loud noise coming in”–my father arched his hand smoothly through the damp air–“and then there’d be silence for a few seconds. Then the bomb would land. But in those few seconds of silence you didn’t know where exactly the bomb would land. He told me that men would hide under their beds terrified.”
We were there for a wedding.
Our room was clean;
our towels were changed every day
and had a mild bleach smell.
Someone made our beds.
“Is it true,” I asked, “that they had to fight the Hitler Youth? Am I remembering that right? I think I remember Uncle Leonard saying that. Were they really young, like eight or nine?”
“Well, no they weren’t that young, but they were in their early teens. The officers would beg them to surrender but they wouldn’t. They didn’t know the word.” The rain outside was pounding but our room was warm, almost hot, so we had the balcony door open.
I bought a leather coat
the morning before,
at a mall downtown.
“Jesus, that must have been awful, to have to kill kids like that,” I whispered.
“Yeah, well, they didn’t have any choice, the kids would stand in front of the tanks and get rolled over. They were absolutely fanatical. But Leonard said it was worse for the Americans.” My father paused for a moment and I could hear the sound of cars drive by on saturated asphalt. “The Americans went at them with flamethrowers. It was the only way to rout them from the Leopold Canal. They wouldn’t go any other way, they’d been indoctrinated since they were this high.” My father held out his hand about three feet of the carpeted floor. We sat on hotel furniture, quietly taking this in, as bulging drops of water bounced off the concrete balcony and low thunder rumbled in the distance, more a cry than a growl.
I thought about the kind of mental gymnastics that would be required to have someone that age, going against such a primal instinct, and sacrificing his life. And I wondered about history and the randomness of time and place.
“He joined a Western regiment, the Regina Rifles, so he would be sent overseas right away,” my father says, and I receive this bit of information with reverence and awe.
We visited the zoo
on the afternoon
before the wedding.
I saw a brown bear
He was a city bear.
If such a thing could be.
“Leonard was never the same when he got back. Neither was Tommy or Frank.” My father was talking about the other men I came from, my other uncles.
“Frank, he had a real bad experience.” He didn’t elaborate. I’m not sure if that was because he didn’t know what the bad thing was or he didn’t want to talk about it. Uncle Tommy shot himself in the head before I was born; he drank too much. He tried to quit (they all tried to quit) but it didn’t stick. When I was about ten, Uncle Frank walked into Lake Nipissing and drowned himself. We had visited him that summer at his retirement home in North Bay. The home had a pool table. It was in the fall when he took his last walk so they couldn’t recover his body until after the winter when the ice thawed. He left a note. I’ve never read it.
I was thinking
about that note
as I looked at the new suitcase
that I bought
at the same mall where I bought my new coat.
Uncle Leonard was one of those anonymous old drunks you see every day, a part of the urban landscape we take for granted, like an abandoned machine shop in the middle of an industrial park. After the war, under a burning and humid Hamilton sun, he worked in a steel mill. He lived in a small bachelor apartment, had a penchant for thick steaks, and drank discounted liquor at the local Legion. We visited him once. I think it was in July; everything was sticky. I managed to impress Uncle Leonard because, though I was only ten, and small for my age, I managed to eat a whole T-bone steak and half of the one my brother couldn’t finish.
Uncle Leonard was an alcoholic. He drank all day, every day, whiskey, sometimes mixed, sometimes straight from the bottle, gallons of it. At night he went to bed with a 26 or 48 ounce bottle and straw and he’d lie down like a nursing baby, ensuring that night would not snatch the drunk from him. He went years without drawing a sober breath.
When Grandma Callaghan died
we all walked slowly to the grave
behind a big black car.
Uncle Leonard was crying.
It was the first time
I had seen
a man cry.
One summer Uncle Leonard came to visit us in our tiny apartment on Raglen Street in the small town of Renfrew. He brought me an orange the size of a strongman’s bicep. He peeled that orange for me, with powerful, patient hands that moved slowly and forcefully, like the hydraulics on a backhoe. The rind didn’t stand a chance.
He showed us how to salute, march in formation, and address an officer. He pulled up his sleeve to show us the scar, inside just below the armpit. It was an ugly, messy star, and it was frightening to know that a piece of the bullet that got him was still somewhere inside his arm.
He was the only man
I ever knew
who had been shot.
I was seven when he visited that summer. I’m not sure if my parents were still in the bottle or had sobered up by then. Two blocks from our apartment was a store my brother and I referred to as the “candy store” because it had candy, lots of candy. I would gather pennies that I found, often lying at the bottom of my mother’s purse, and head off to buy. The ritual was to dump the change on the counter and declare how much I had, and then ask to turn those pennies into a bag of mixed-up candy. The person behind the counter would grab a small paper bag and pick randomly, placing an assortment of candy, from the small display boxes that were lined up behind the counter. Bill was the owner of the store and could sometimes be crabby. He was bald, and wore thick glasses and a dark olive janitor’s uniform. His voice was deep and scary, so when he talked it sounded like a growling dog.
Uncle Leonard had pockets filled with change, and while he was visiting he gave us handfuls. Sometimes he’d even give us paper money which we’d stare at and treat with the reverence of a sacred scroll. During those days of plenty I’d sometimes make three or four trips to the “candy store,” stuffing myself with bubble-gum, Swedish Raspberries, and the odd piece of licorice. I had no idea if my luck would ever be this good again, so I got while the gettin’ was good. It must have been on about my third visit one day that Bill shoved the small brown bag of good fortune toward me and spoke terrifying words: “Here. Now don’t you come back.” I cried all the way home , trying to eat my candy as best I could through choking tears.
“Bill told me I couldn’t go back,” I blurted to the adults gathered in the kitchen.
“What?” my father asked. He likely couldn’t understand me because I was crying and had a mouthful of gum.
I took a deep breath and explained, “I went to the candy store and Bill said I couldn’t come back no more.” As I said this I began to cry even harder.
Uncle Leonard stood up and, quietly, angrily, said, “We’ll see about that.” The next thing I remember is walking to the “candy store” with my uncle. I came up to his waist and remember looking at his bulging belly that was evened out by his thick, bulging forearms. Even his fingers seemed to burst with muscle. Those were Nazi-choking hands. I looked up at his face and it was determined and fearless. He looked straight ahead as we marched to the store.
We stood at the counter for three seconds before Uncle Leonard said, “Where’s Bill? I want to see Bill.” The hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention.
Bill sauntered out from the back room. He appeared confident and unafraid as he looked at me, but his face changed when he saw that it wasn’t Father standing there, but a stranger. A stranger with a head that looked like it could endure many, many forceful blows.
“Did you tell my nephew he couldn’t come back here?” Technically this was a question but it was stated like a warning or even a threat.
Bill was suddenly preoccupied with arranging the candy boxes on the shelf. In a small voice that was cracking just a tiny bit, Bill said, “No, no, nothing like that.” He had his back to us and talked into the floor. “I just meant he shouldn’t come back today.” This was a lie. Uncle Leonard stood tall and straight and stared at the back of Bill’s head. I’m the dog now, I thought, and I could smell Bill’s fear. His hands shook slightly as he adjusted the straws on the counter, still unable to look at the fire in my uncle’s face. We left.
the safest moment
We take the Red Arrow home, back to Edmonton, and the prairie sky is like a hanging ceiling of grey cotton candy. The rain continues, cleansing away the remnants of a Western winter. As we pass by field after field I stare out the window and I think of young men like Uncle Leonard who fought in fields like the ones I see now. I try to put myself there, to make myself feel the bullet hit my arm. To watch what keeps me alive seep into the soil. Did he smell copper and earth, smoke and fire? In those six hours did he make deals with God as he lay among dead friends in an old-time Catholic hell?
Our people farmed in the summer and felled trees in the winter. I suspect that joining the army, and going overseas, was an attractive alternative to being a poor Irish man-tractor, feeding the forest with blood and sweat to fill the coffers of the English and Scottish landowners.
I think about Tommy and Frank and Leonard, and how the drink killed what the war could not. But the drink couldn’t take away what they had been: soldiers. Boys who dropped their axes and plows, walked off the farm and out of the bush and went to foreign fields, to suffer and bleed and die.
There is a bit of snow on the ground as we make our way past Bowden. What would a May long weekend in Alberta be without a little snow. I am warm, and happy, and safe. I will likely go the rest of my life never having been shot in the arm fighting in a war, and part of me is ashamed for this soft life I have.
At my feet
pieces of art
we bought at the gallery
where the wedding was
The best I can do is shelter the ghosts of these men that I miss, though I never really knew them. I keep them in a room marked “Death by Alcohol.” They aren’t lonely because the room is full of family. I visit them often and sometimes I strap one of these ghosts to my back, like Uncle Leonard, and carry the cross of his memory around for a while, and then I’ll put him back.
I am hitching my breath and fighting back tears as I remember all over again how much I miss these men I came from, and how the ghost of a man is not the same as the life of a man. These are the bombs that terrify me because they land in the most unexpected places, with no set time, and I have no choice but to honour what these men did, and who they were, by telling a story. So, right here in the Red Arrow, my face is in danger of becoming as smear-streaked as the window I look out of, as I think of Uncle Leonard and the heroic things he did without being asked: The War, The Orange, and The Candy Store, and I am regretful, and I am sorry, that I never had the chance to at least whisper: