Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November 11th - A Day of Canons, Exploding Sheep and Remembrance

Growing up, whenever Remembrance fell on a weekend, I felt deprived of a day off during the school week. Plus, I also knew that this meant that I’d have to sit through a Remembrance Day ceremony in our school gym on the cold, hard floor and do my best to keep silent, something that a grade school kid (with friends who could make the funniest of faces at a moment’s notice, and would) will never excel at, particularly under those circumstances. To make it worse, when I found out that we wouldn’t get the following Monday off in lieu of it falling on a weekend, I felt even more ripped off! It was sad, but this pretty much was my attitude through the educational years of my life.

When it did fall during the regular school week, it was a great day as we weren’t at school, but unlike a Saturday or Sunday, there really wasn’t much to do. Stores were closed all day, movies theatres didn’t show any films, and most of what you had on television involved politicians, soldiers, and people uncomfortably standing out in the cold. The cannons they shot off at 11:11 am were cool, but after wondering a) where the cannon balls would fly, and b) if they’d actually hit something in the city (my school, for example, which would be really fun to discover the next day), finding out there weren’t actually any cannon balls loaded into them was quite a let-down, so I lost my interest in that too.

Through those years, we still pause to remember the significance of the day, but now I find that so much has changed with the way we handle what can be open for business that day, and what can’t. Back then, it was customary that businesses would not be open on November 11th, in respect to those who had fought and fallen for our country in World War One. Now, looking through our local newspaper this week, I see that this has changed – even though businesses can’t be open until early afternoon, it’s become a big shopping day in the shadow of the holidays to come.

Given the experiences I had as a child, you’d think this would be good news to me. But my perspective of Remembrance Day has changed, and it’s all because of a trip I took in the summer of 1990.

Funny things can happen when you travel, and when you’re traveling to Europe as recently graduated university student, times that by 10, at least.

I had just left for a 2-month, mostly-unplanned journey across as much of Europe as my Eurorail pass, my backpack and my bank account could handle. My buddy Jamie and I flew into London on a cool and grey early June afternoon, and soon after landing and making our way to the white cliffs of Dover, we found ourselves crossing the English Channel by ferry (pre-Chunnel days) on our way to Calais, France, where we’d spend our first of many nights in Europe.

When you travel without much of a plan, you have to expect the unexpected. Not necessarily the Spanish Inquisition (cause nobody expects that and that was much more south than we were), but when you’re willing to open yourself up to new experiences and meet new people, it’s amazing what and/or who will cross your path. One of the most limiting things I believe you can do for nearly any travel holiday is to plan your trip down to the last hour of every day. You need to provide yourself with the opportunity to make spur-of-the-moment decisions, especially in a close gathering of countries where if you happened to decide to head east for 2 hours you’d be in the mountains of Germany, or if you head south-west for 2 hours you’re in the vineyards of Spain - or in the middle of the Mediterranean if you go a little too far and can’t recognize the difference between land masses and water.

On our boat crossing, we happened to meet a few other travelers from North America, one being a fellow Canadian, Jeff, who wasn’t backpacking across Europe as we were, but was working as a guide at Vimy Ridge, a memorial site in France dedicated to the memory of Canadian Expeditionary Force members killed during the First World War.

The morning after arriving in Europe and we're just about to take our first train ride, from Calais to Arras, France. From left to right: Greg (Seattle), Jamie (Winnipeg), Rob (Seattle), and Jeff (Canada), our Vimy guide.

While celebrating our landing in our first French pub - we agree to follow Jeff, diverting ourselves towards the town of Arras, where we’d find a room for a couple of nights and visit the memorial, just a short distance away. We were easily convinced as we were seven time zones away from home, looking for some adventures, and hadn’t slept for over 30 hours.

The view of Arras from the top of their main church, taken by Jamie as I'm not great with heights and couldn't make it up the old wooden and metal stairs that lead to the tower!

Posing in front of our hotel, facing the town square.

So there we were – fresh and eager to explore Europe, and with the guided visit to the memorial a day ahead, we had so much to anticipate. The timing of our meeting with Jeff was also fantastic as he became a guide and connection to many locals residents and establishments in Arras where we would soon enjoy local homemade cooking, learning some local drinking songs in the pubs where as regular travelers we likely would never have entered, and we also learned the art of ordering and consuming a ‘meter of beer’ with your traveling buddies. But at the end of our few days there, nothing would compare to the experience of being guided through the Vimy Memorial.

Driving in through the multi-acre property, one of the first things we saw in the grassy hills was the occasional collection of sheep, quietly grazing as if they were in the middle of a farm. This seemed like an unlikely addition for the attraction of tourists, but it turns out that they graze in the ‘red zone,’ which are areas where there are suspected buried munitions from World War One that have yet to explode. I’m not sure what animal activists in Canada would have to say about this set up, but knowing French unions and their policies, I can’t see them cutting the grass weekly either. Our friend did say that every so often they’d be guiding a tour and from off in the distance they’d hear a muffled ‘boom!’ No comment was made though to the existence of any short-notice lunch specials in the cafeteria that may or may not involve recently deceased wooly animals.

Having just arrived at the Vimy Memorial, this sign explained why we saw sheep grazing in marked areas that were definitely NOT open to the public. No explosions were heard this particular day.

We walked up to and explored the sculpted memorial, which reaches endlessly towards the skies. It was an amazing sight – its size and grandeur was stunning, but at the same time it brought about feelings of peace and calm. Serving as a place of commemoration for the Canadian soldiers who fought, were killed or presumed dead in France with no known grave, it’s a moving tribute to the soldiers who were here and fought and died for our freedom.

Walking the steps to the tallest point of the memorial.

I had studied in Art History in university the significance of many of these sculptures, but of course, when there, I was completely blank as to their meaning. Being there though, you couldn't help but feel their significance.

Also on the grounds are some of the original tunnels, craters and trenches that you can explore with a guide. When in one of the tunnels, Jeff explained to us that there usually were two separate tunnels –the first, the one that we presently were in, would serve as a main route to get the troops quickly and safely to the front, and the second tunnel would be the way back to triage for the seriously injured, and as well for the dead they were able to retrieve when it was safe. It was something I had never thought about, but when seeing the system in person and trying to imagine how terrifying it would be to be traveling through these trenches to the front, hearing the bomb blasts and gun fire above, for morale alone, I could see why they would want the routes separated.

When we explored the tunnel that lead away from the front, we were led to a holding area for the wounded, and when our eyes adjusted we could see hundreds of hand-made scratches on each of the walls – these scratches were messages made by the injured solders who were on their gurneys, positioned close enough to the wall for them to reach out and leave behind the thoughts of likely their last moments in the war, and potentially in their lives. At this moment our guide told us a story that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A year or so before, he had taken a group of Canadian war veterans through the very same tunnels and into this holding area, and one of the gentlemen, a guy who had said very little up until that point, walked over to one of the walls and found a message carved into the wall that was made by his best friend – a friend he had fought with at this very location, a friend who never made it back from the war. This was his first time visiting what was the original battlefield, and the first time he had seen the words left by his friend nearly 76 years before. I can only imagine what that would have been like – never having been able to say goodbye when they were originally there and now seeing his dying words. He was the lucky one, living on and having the chance to return so many years later, while for his friend, his body and his words will live on in the spot where he died forever more. Then I realized just how lucky I was. I came to this place by my own free will, and could leave when I wanted to, and safely. The freedom I had was due to the soldiers who originally fought at Vimy and from those who had written on these very walls.

Some of the many unmarked graves of fallen Canadian Soldiers.

At the end of our visit, we were all a lot quieter and certainly more reflective than we had been since we landed in London. I don’t think that when we were planning our trip to Europe, pinching ourselves about visiting places like Paris, Rome and London, we’d ever have expected that our travels that were so far from home would teach us so much about our own country and history, and the debt we owed. I never again would see Remembrance Day the same way.

Our group including a new friend who we had met the evening before. She wrote for the "Let's Go" book series, and we therefore referred to her as the "Let's Go Girl!" Sadly, I've forgotten her real name!

Now it’s 20 years later, and since that remarkable visit, my impressions of Remembrance Day have changed significantly. On Thursday, November 11th, 2010, as I’m taking the day off of work, I know I will be thinking about the significance of the day and what it means to me to have the freedom that we do and so often take for granted.

And in a couple of years when that day falls on a weekend, I won’t mind at all and I certainly won’t feel ripped off. I’ll remember the freedom I have in life and how easily I can travel to most places in the world. I’ll also remember and celebrate what others sacrificed for us to have peace.

Lest We Forget

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!


Susan Kuz said...

Evan, this is a wonderful tribute to those who have fought and fallen for our freedom. Thanks for taking us through your personal journey of Vimy. And the note on the sheep...very interesting!

Luella said...

Have you read Jane Urquhart's The Stone Carvers? It's about the Vimy memorial. Excellent read, but not as personal as this excellent blog.

Evan Kuz said...

Thanks and thanks! And I have read The Stone Carvers - an amazing book that took me back to my visit there. I'd love to go back - I came close when I was cycling in France about 7 years ago, but one day soon...