Canadians at War

Here in Calgary I’ve noticed that the media has begun to refer to “Remembrance Week”. To me, this is a welcome change. Two minutes of silence to remember those who died in war and those whose lives were forever changed by war has always seemed paltry.  My own Remembrance Week began with an extraordinarily beautiful service at Christ Church last Sunday, included a large and moving ceremony at the Cenotaph in Memorial Park and ended yesterday with an event called “Canadians at War:  Maverick Legacy”, co-sponsored by the Calgary Public Library and Wordfest. 

Three writers: Aritha van Herk, who wrote “Mavericks “, the inaugural choice of the One Book/One Calgary program; Valerie Fortney, who wrote “Sunray:  the Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard” and me came together to discuss the role Canadians have played during times of conflict past and present.  The event was held on the main floor of Central Library between noon and 1:30. 

I think all of us who were reading felt a twang when we saw that the podium from which we would read and the chairs for our audience were set up in a very public area with a great deal of foot traffic, but it turned out that having the event so clearly open to the public was perfect.  We had a solid core of people who came for the program, but many others wandered by, were interested in what they heard, found a chair and stayed.

Perhaps because of the informal nature of our gathering those of us who were speaking spoke personally and from the heart.  Aritha told of the day Canadian soldiers, tall, healthy and well-fed, came to the gate of her home, a home that like all other homes in the war-torn Netherlands of World War II was painfully short of food.  One of the soldiers gave her a brother a chocolate bar and having never seen a chocolate bar, the boy ran inside and told his parents that there was a big man at the gate and the man had given him a stick.  Later, Aritha’s parents talked to the soldier and when he told them that Canada offered vast spaces and limitless opportunities, they decided to emigrate.  Aritha was born in Alberta. Yesterday, when she spoke of her gratitude to that soldier for changing her life and the lives of everyone in her family, she had to fight her tears. 

I spoke after Aritha, and her story sparked a story of my own. After my grandfather was killed in the First World War, my grandmother, born and raised in Kent, uneducated and with two young children to raise on her own, left Toronto and went home to England.  She saw immediately that in England the lives of her children would be limited by the fact that they were working class, and she returned to Canada.  The lives of my grandmother’s children were, by anyone’s measure, good and productive.  The possibilities realized in my life and in the lives of our children and their children would be beyond her imagining.

At yesterday’s event, I read from a novella called “1919:  The Love Letters of George and Adelaide”.  I wrote it with Ron Marken, everybody’s favourite English professor at the University of Saskatchewan.  Until this past week, I hadn’t read the book in 23 years, and I found myself in tears—not at the excellence of the book but at the power of the facts behind it. 

In “Fifth Business” Robertson Davies’ protagonist, Dunstan Ramsay, has a haunting line about what it was like to be a young soldier returning home after World War I.  “We had seen all of the worst of life and none of the best,” he says. “We were like pieces of meat that had been burned on one side and were raw on the other.”  1919 follows a year in the lives of a young nursing volunteer, Adelaide Farlinger, and two young soldiers, George MacTaggart and Roger Currie, as they try to tunnel through their memories of the worst of life to discover something good and beautiful. Adelaide and George are able to find that purpose and beauty; Roger cannot find a way through the darkness and pain, and he commits suicide. In our research, Ron and I learned that there were many “Rogers” – men who, well after the war was over, died of what the newspapers euphemistically referred to as “nerves”. 

Valerie Fortney’s account of the writing of “Sunray: the Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard” was riveting.  Valerie began with the fact that what most of us know about Nichola Goddard is that she was the first female Canadian soldier to die in combat, and that Nichola Goddard would have hated that permanent epithet.  Valerie never met Nichola Goddard, but she spoke to the scores of people who knew her best:  her parents; her husband; her friends and the soldiers who served with her. Nicola’s own letters home – and there were many of them—were a treasure trove.  She held nothing back, and when you read those letters, you can hear her voice.

As the book jacket notes, on the day she died, Captain Goddard had already earned herself a spot in the history books by being the first Canadian solider since the Korean War to call in a fire mission against enemy combatants.  The term “sunray” in military parlance refers to a leader, and Captain Goddard was, by all accounts, a fine leader: brave, smart, capable, strong and compassionate.  There was every reason to believe that she would advance through the ranks to a position of great distinction.

Nichola Goddard was also a human being: a daughter deeply loved by her thoughtful, pacifist parents; a wife deeply in love with her husband, a lover of spas and creature comforts and of the movie, the Princess Bride. The dress Nichola wore at her own wedding was lacey and romantic—a dress for a princess.  She studied at RMC and had a degree in English Literature.  She was particularly attracted to the poetry written by soldiers like Wilfred Owens who came back, forever changed, from the trenches in World War One.

Hearing about her zest for her life as a soldier and a woman, I wonder what Captain Nichola Goddard thought of Wilfred Owens’ angry rejection of what he came to call “the Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est. Pro patria mori”.  

The idea that it is sweet and right to die for your country is, I think, something worth pondering and not just in Remembrance Week.

©2017 Gail Bowen.  All Rights Reserved.