Pro­files in Courage

We asked for sto­ries hon­our­ing Canada’s war vets and you de­liv­ered! Here’s a sam­ple of the in­spir­ing tales we re­ceived

Our Canada - - Contents - Penny Heneke, Burling­ton, Ont.

In hon­our of Re­mem­brance Day, here’s a se­lec­tion of in­spir­ing sto­ries that pay trib­ute to our brave men and women in uni­form.

LET­TERS FROM THE FRONT A glimpse into life on the front lines

“When an air raid oc­curs, you’ve got to tum­ble off your bed (three planks of wood), grab your steel hel­met and spend hours in the dug-out un­til the fun is over. Some­times, it lasts about two hours, so it’s no joke. But it’s an amaz­ing sight, watch­ing the search­lights prob­ing the skies, hear­ing the drone of the planes, the ter­rific burst of the anti-air­craft guns, and the still nois­ier bombs from the ‘Jerry’ planes.”

Ev­ery Re­mem­brance Day dur­ing the two min­utes of si­lence, while the haunt­ing strains of the “Last Post” play, I vi­su­al­ize my un­cle, Nor­man Parker, man­ning anti-air­craft guns in the West­ern Desert Cam­paign in North Africa dur­ing World War II.

My im­pres­sions come from a small bun­dle of let­ters from rel­a­tives and friends of my par­ents that I found among my late mother’s pos­ses­sions. The let­ters bear three-penny postage stamps and an in­deli­ble blue ink rub­ber stamp read­ing, “Passed By Cen­sor.”

I be­lieve my mother kept these par­tic­u­lar sam­ples as they of­fer congratulations on my birth on Novem­ber 4, 1941:

“I’m very glad to hear about the new ar­rival in the fam­ily. It cer­tainly is a very nice name you have cho­sen for her. I am look­ing for­ward to see­ing her very much, and I hope it will not be very long be­fore I am back,” wrote Un­cle Nor­man.

These let­ters of­fer a san­i­tized glimpse of a sol­dier’s life at the front. The idea was to re­tain con­fi­den­tial­ity and to down­play the ter­rors of the war to shield loved ones at home.

The first let­ter from the pile is dated Oc­to­ber 2, 1941, and reads,

“A line or two from Egypt. I’ve been here for about two months now. And though I’ve searched about for what novelists of­ten de­scribe as ‘that lure of the desert’ or ‘the ro­mance of the desert,’ I’ve found noth­ing but sand, sand and more sand.”

An­other let­ter of­fers the fol­low­ing de­scrip­tion:

“The only place that I have found with a bit of colour is where we are camped at now. It is re­ally quite pretty here, as there are

masses of all sorts of wild­flow­ers, the pret­ti­est of which are real pop­pies, and they are blood red, and cer­tainly a sight for sore eyes in the desert.”

Other let­ters re­fer to the liv­ing con­di­tions:

“We’ve been hav­ing in­ter­mit­tent sand­storms; the sand, which is fine and pow­dery, is whipped up by the wind, ac­com­pa­nied by a whin­ing noise, and you can’t see three feet ahead. Ev­ery­thing be­comes cov­ered by desert, your food, blan­kets, etc. But you get used to it.”

The let­ters also men­tion the names of bat­tles that took place in the West­ern Desert Cam­paign in­clud­ing Bar­dia, Sol­lum, Hal­faya and Sidi Rezegh, with­out go­ing into any de­tails ex­cept to add:

“We had a good share of the ac­tion,“or “We were on the run, and in­evitably, “We didn’t get much sleep or a de­cent wash.”

One let­ter gives an ac­count of an air raid:

“Once I saw a plane caught in the search­light, as a re­sort to get­ting out, dive right down the beam, and the bul­lets from its ma­chine guns go­ing right down into the light. When the shells or bombs come your way, they whis­tle.”

From the sketches in the let­ters, days off of­fered a sense of re­lief. “A de­cent meal, bath and show, and be­lieve me, one needs it here.”

Leave com­prised vis­its to places such as Cairo and Alexan­dria.

“I have been very for­tu­nate in be­ing able to see quite a fair bit of the cities in this coun­try as I was sta­tioned out­side Cairo for just over a month. I have been out to see the Pyra­mids and the Sphinx and to most of the mosques, and it was re­ally very in­ter­est­ing. Cairo has a huge pop­u­la­tion.”

An­other ac­count gave his im­pres­sions of Alexan­dria:

“Alexan­dria is a blend­ing of the new with the old, the East with the West. It’s an ori­en­tal city, white build­ings, square-topped, dust, heat and thou­sands of uni­forms. I never want to see an­other uni­form af­ter this war.“

Nor­man was spared and re­turned home safely to be­come an enor­mous in­flu­ence on my life. As a young child, he was my fairy god­fa­ther show­er­ing me with treats or a cov­eted half crown on each visit.

As a teen, he be­came my men­tor, en­cour­ag­ing me to study hard and re­ward­ing me with a cam­era on com­plet­ing high school. On my wed­ding day, he drove me to the church and said, “You make a beau­ti­ful bride.” He de­liv­ered the toast to the bride and groom, end­ing with a line from “Ode to the West Wind“by Percy Bysshe Shel­ley: “If win­ter comes can spring be far be­hind?”

Con­sid­er­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties he over­came fight­ing in World War II, I didn’t an­tic­i­pate any­thing as chal­leng­ing ahead of me.

He was my role model my en­tire life. He was highly prin­ci­pled, fiercely pa­tri­otic and be­lieved in do­ing his duty, which made him a hero in my eyes. He was not only a per­fect gen­tle­man but also a gen­tle man. I can’t imag­ine what my life would have been with­out his guid­ance and nur­tur­ing.

Each Re­mem­brance Day, as I fondly re­call all he did for his coun­try and me, I am over­come with melan­choly as I de­spair at all the lost lives and empty places in other fam­i­lies. We can never for­get the sac­ri­fices of these men.

Gun­ner Nor­man Parker.

Penny’s un­cle Nor­man (right) dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

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