Words of war ring forever true
Horror resonates in poetry
The words tumble in my head over and over this time of year, a simple poem committed to memory and resonating on cue as we make our annual trek to cenotaphs across the country on Sunday.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of…”
The words were penned by John Gillespie Magee, a fighter pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force who died in December 1941, two years after he donned a uniform and barely two months after he joined the war effort in Europe. A generation earlier, another Canadian soldier, Lt.-Col. John McRae, penned another poem so rich in imagery it too became one of the most famous literary works about war:
“We are the dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.”
In Flanders Fields captured the true horrors of the battlefield. It resonates deeply with Canadians, especially when you visit Vimy Ridge and stand in the shadow of a monument to Canadian war dead so powerful it can bring you to your knees.
High Flight captured a very different sentiment, for me a sense of joy and youthful invincibility in the face of war. It spoke of the sheer freedom of flight and held out a promise of unbridled adventure, a sentiment that I am sure, in different ways, drew hundreds of thousands of Canadian men and women into uniform.
My father was a pilot, a flight instructor for the Royal Commonwealth Flying Corps during the latter days of the Second World War, who, at only 18, was teaching men to fly.
I still struggle to comprehend a world where at 18 you are flying planes and teaching others to ready for war.
I grew up on military bases in the postwar 1950s and 1960s, so the military is in my DNA somewhat, even though I never donned a uniform. Others in my family have, including a son who served in Afghanistan. His generation, more than mine, has felt the stresses of war and likely explains why so many young people are drawn to ceremonies this day.
For us — the baby boom generation — the Second World War was ancient history, even though we were born at a time when Europe was still recovering from the ruins. I recall my father speaking of friends lost or injured in the war. Down the street, a neighbour had been a pilot with the famous Dam Busters squadron. Yes, Ken Brown was our own hero, a local celebrity.
I remember as a kid digging out an old leather helmet and goggles worn by my father during so many training flights. We felt like Snoopy atop his doghouse as we raced about the house.
I also recall a heavy woollen coat tucked deep into a closet, so heavy and thick you would think you were donning an overgrown shag rug. My father explained how cold it was to be in an open cockpit over a training base in Saskatchewan in January or at a dozen other centres where he trained and flew across the Canadian landscape.
The recollections come racing back now. I remember driving along a field near Hawkesbury and my father pointing to the remnants of a few old shacks in an overgrown field and explaining how he’d spent some time training pilots there as well.
My uncle would tell the story of how my father once flew his plane under the old Hawkesbury bridge, a sort of right of passage for young pilots at the time. My father never admitted to doing so, perhaps fearing he’d transfer such youthful and reckless indiscretion to his crop of sons.
My father enjoyed a highly successful postwar military career and bounced his family through many transfers in Canada and the United States. We were living outside Boston when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred at the height of the Cold War. He retired a general officer after a final posting at a military sub-headquarters in the Netherlands in the 1980s.
There, during a routine meeting, a French general casually complained about Canada’s meagre contribution to a permanent military presence in Europe. At the time, Canada had about 5,000 troops at two bases in Germany.
My father corrected him: Canada had 100,000 soldiers committed to the freedom of Europe, he explained, except that more than 95,000 would never return home.
They are among the ones we remember today.
“Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace. Where never lark, or even eagle flew — and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
Gibbons is former publisher and CEO of the Ottawa Sun. He can be heard weekdays 1 p.m.-3 p.m. on 1310 NEWS
One of the Beechwood Tommies — aluminum figures in the shape of a soldier — stands before the rows of headstones at the National Military Cemetery in the Beechwood Cemetery yesterday.