Words of war ring for­ever true

Hor­ror res­onates in po­etry

Ottawa Sun - - NEWS - RICK GIB­BONS rick.gib­bons@out­look.com @rick­_gib­bons

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.

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