Both my grandfathers fought in WWII.
My maternal grandfather, Jack, was a Lieutenant in the armored core, training soldiers how to pilot tanks. He then studied at Khaki College while helping oversee the return of soldiers back to Canada. Led to a career in the early days of the airline industry, retiring as the VP, Travel for Ford Canada. He volunteered helping travelers at airports till the day he died.
My paternal grandfather, Al, was a safety inspector and mechanic in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He stayed in the military through the 60s, stationed in Germany and other places. Then retired to a career as a long-haul truck driver. He could recite the service numbers of everyone he worked with over 25 years. On his 80th birthday, he went down to the Ministry of Transportation, passed the mandated old-age test to renew his trucker’s license, took one step out of the door, paused, then turned around and handed it back in voluntarily.
Jack’s role overseeing the trip home for 1,000s of soldiers meant that the war played itself out again on the other side of his desk. He heard the story of each soldier’s personal, lived experience as they sat getting their paperwork together. The story that stayed with me was what happened to the men who literally kicked down the doors of the concentration camps, not knowing what was on the other side. Most of them returned home to asylums.
The thing I would ask them–if they were around today–is when did they know? When did they realize the rules of normal civility no longer applied? When did it become apparent they had to fight? These things don’t happen at once. They happen by inches, over years. At what point do you acknowledge it and change your response?
Much has been written about fascism in the last few days. I want to believe this country is stronger than that. But I’m having a very hard time knowing how to gauge my response. I wish I could ask them for guidance.
Neither of my grandfathers took pride in what they’d done. They didn’t see it as a service. They saw it as a necessity; a posture distinct from much of the rhetoric that will cross our screens today. One that I feel is more honourable–not to just to those who lived through it–but to the horrific reality of war.
That’s why my wife and I pause at 11am. Why we treat this day with reverence. Why we tell our daughters about their great-grandfathers and grandmothers on both sides. Not to celebrate, but to remind ourselves we can never let it happen again.