I wrote this poem a few years back when I was watching my dad, who is a veteran of World War 2, and a member of the Royal Canadian Legion, marking essays that school students had written about Remembrance Day, for a contest sponsored by the Legion.
He was feeling badly because it was obvious few of the students
really had any clear understanding of what war was truly about, and what Remembrance Day was truly about. There were actually tears in his eyes as he read and judged the entries. This poem was my reaction to that experience.
The old man sits, puzzled, troubled,
He scans them again,
The essays, the poems,
The school-child assignments…
He remembers alright.
How could be forget?
He was there after all,
Fifty-plus years ago.
It seems like yesterday sometimes,
The memories so clear, so stark.
Images seared upon his soul.
But these, these words of “remembrance”…
What do they really have to do with the reality he knows?
I look at him.
I read the comments he has written,
I feel his bewilderment,
I scan them myself.
There are even poems written
By my niece, by my daughter…
By his own grandchildren,
His own flesh and blood.
How could it be?
In their Remembrance,
He finds them strangers.
A small girl stands, shivering,
Dressed warm in red plaid skirt,
Dull brown leotards, dark winter jacket.
Early snow and gray skies
Turn the schoolyard to a bleak
Black and white and gray tableau.
She gazes at the cold gray, granite block
Standing solid, eternal,
Engraved with names of men…
(They must have been old, old men…
Were they really real people even?
After all, they all died a long, long, long, long time ago,
From something called war.
Well, anyway, it was forever ago, you know.
Fifteen or more years ago,
Which is forever when you are only six years old.)
She looks up
At her beloved daddy.
She is surprised.
Today he looks so tall.
Well, of course, he is tall; all daddies are.
But today he stands so straight,
So proud, so strong… so sad! Why, sad?
Everything is white and black and gray,
Except for her red plaid skirt,
And the slightly faded ribbons on his chest.
The Remembrance image stays with her forever.
New teacher, young, strong,
Talking about Remembrance Day.
He reads a poem,
Quietly, urgently, painfully.
He says it was written by a young man…
A boy really…
In a war called the Great War.
But Remembrance lives on.
Did the teacher show a painting
Or did the words themselves
Sear the image in my mind forever?
The image is green…
Green-smush mud, green-gray uniforms,
Green-gray cart, poison-green air,
Eyes bulging, dying, dying, dying…
Dulce et decorum est…
It is good and honourable
To die for one’s country.
The old lie…
An older teacher,
Old enough to remember
(Memories a bit different
Than those of the old man.
She was only a child back then, after all).
Those wars were honourable,
Even though they were sad.
The soldiers, the young men,
The sons and brothers and boyfriends
And husbands and fathers,
The real flesh-and-blood-and-full-of-
life-and-dreams young men,
Bought us (who did not yet exist),
Bought us freedom
With their lives.
How proudly we stood
Upon the school stage.
Behind us the props
We so carefully created.
Bright red poppies against dark fields.
Together we chanted the Remembrance theme,
In Flanders fields the poppies grow…
To you from failing hands we throw
Be yours to hold it high…
Days, weeks, months, years.
The Forrest Gump years, you know…
The daily dinner-time news images
And the marches and sit-ins for love
And peace and flower-power
Oddly keeping company with the family
About school, boyfriends, church, basketball games.
It wasn’t real, of course.
Well, alright, we couldn’t deny the reality
(And the attraction!)
Of the young hippies
Who crowded our sunny summertime
We heard some of them were draft dodgers.
(Later, I met boys who’d been to ‘Nam…
They didn’t talk much about it,
But when I got to know them,
I finally knew it was real…
And it was bad)…
A different kind of war.
More TV images
(Until I fell in love with him,
And found out it was real.
Found out those history-book
Hollywood western shoot-em-up Indian wars
And still go on
In the hearts and lives and souls of his people…
And in the pained soul of our nation)…
And somewhere, far away,
Cold wars (those dirty commies)…
And hot spot wars (but they weren’t a big deal,
Just some uneducated coloured people
In mostly uncivilized jungle countries
Hacking at each other…
With a bit of help sometimes,
A few weapons, a bit of money,
From helpful, more civilized nations).
Not at all like our wars,
The ones we remember.
The ones waged by civilized,
Saving the world from the commies
And the fascists
And Saddam Hussein
And other bad guys,
Giving us freedom.
Bridge Over the River Kwai
The Dirty Dozen.
The Great Escape.
Remembering Private Ryan…
And Hogan’s Heroes re-runs every day
And, of course, TV documentaries,
Fuzzy black and white clips
Of a funny-looking little man
With a square little moustache
Shouting and waving his arms…
And oddly, frighteningly,
Thousands of black-and-white people,
Civilized, educated people
Cheering him on,
The end of a century of great progress…
Of great wars.
Wars we Remember (with a capital R).
A little boy, 9 years old,
Dressed in the uniform of his peers…
Khaki pants, camo shirt, camo hat.
He sees no incongruity
Between the outfit and the occasion.
Another cold 11th of November day.
Black and white and grey and windy,
And khaki-camo green.
The little girl of the red plaid skirt
Stands beside her boy child,
Looks down at him,
The sound of marching feet
Breaks the quiet waiting.
And the old-young soldiers,
Bundled against the cold,
Gray heads crowned proudly
With the caps of their regiments
Take their places beside the
Cold gray granite stone.
The ceremony goes on
As it has gone on
Since the young-old soldiers
Returned from battle
(And some didn’t).
The names, engraved on that ancient stone,
Are read aloud.
Six have the same last name.
It was a very small town back then.
Were they all brothers?
And maybe one of them a husband and father?
Does their wife and mother still weep?
The little boy grips his mommy’s hand.
“Look! There’s Grandpa!”
He stands there tall.
You cannot tell today that he has
Shrunken with age,
And you won’t even notice the wrinkles
And gray hair,
And the tremor in his walk on this windy day.
He still stands tall, proud, strong…
Proudly the boy child speaks.
“That’s my grandpa!
He was in the war.
Look at his medals!
By Norma J. Hill
To my Dad, Bill Wright, Calgary Highlanders,
who fought for my freedom before I came to be.
Date: November 1999