Monday, December 5, 2011

As small as a boy’s scar, as big as lost love, war changes an ordinary family

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
November, 2011

My father remembered hearing the news while playing on the street. The war was over. The Nazis were beaten. A parent he could barely remember would soon be home after years battling the enemy overseas.

It was May 8, 1945. Throughout Canada, people took to the streets in spontaneous celebrations to mark V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. In overcrowded Halifax, drunken celebrants — serviceman, at first, soon after joined by civilians — smashed windows and looted shops. In most places, the explosion of pent-up exuberance cost no greater damage than a morning-after headache.

My father wound up with a souvenir of his own. He was a boy in short pants that day, a Grade One student approaching his seventh birthday. As he ran home to tell his mother the exciting news, he fell on a gravel street and skinned his knee, the scar long a reminder of an otherwise happy day.

The reunion my father anticipated did not work out as he imagined. His father returned unscathed, but the years away had altered the marriage. It did not turn out to be a happy homecoming, as they ended up living apart.

When he came of age, my father followed his father’s example by enlisting. For a young man of limited financial means, the army offered an opportunity perhaps to see the world, even if that meant patrolling on the front lines of the Cold War in Europe. As it turned out, he met my mother and the birth of two children 14 months apart put the kibosh on his globetrotting ambitions. An early family photograph captures me wearing my dad’s cap sideways and grinning like a goof.

My grandfather gave his name to my father, who in turn gave the name to me, an inheritance from men who had little of material wealth to pass on. Both had volunteered for military service, an option that held little attraction for me. My boyhood paralleled the Vietnam War era and ours was a household that opposed a war in which Canada, thankfully, was not engaged.

Still, I grew up in apartments in which the cinder-block-and-plank shelves groaned with books about war history. The paperback edition of William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, with its lurid swastika cover, especially looms in memory. I read it in middle school and later interviewed the war correspondent himself. At home, military history mattered.

Yet the Hawthorn contribution to military service is not distinguished. My Scottish-born grandfather, who had been a bootblack and shipyard labourer in Glasgow, served with Fort Garry Horse, which took part in the tough slog through occupied France, Belgium, Holland and on into Germany. He was a cook — I never heard a word about his culinary prowess — so it is possible he inflicted more harm on our troops than on the enemy.

I’d like to know what my late father would have made of the news that the government is reinstating regal designations of two branches of the armed forces — the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Those names disappeared into the history books with the amalgamation of the armed forces in 1968, a move that at the time certainly outraged veterans and many serving members. But no one in uniform today has ever served under the old designations.

My father served with the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), which was known for its kilts and bagpiping. Enlisting in the late 1950s, he saw no combat other than the occasional weekend dust-up with air force fly boys in their blue uniforms.

His own army stories involved falling afoul of a tough-minded sergeant. He was chewed out at morning parade for having a soiled uniform and warned not to repeat the infraction. He showed up the next day wearing impeccably polished boots and nothing else. “As you ordered, sir,” he told the sergeant. “Spotless, sir.”

The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) lives on now only as a reserve regiment, another of the royal connections to have slipped away over the years. The military historian J.L. Granatstein makes a convincing argument that the Royal designation is meaningless in modern Canada. “The reality is that soldiers fight for their regiments and their comrades; sailors fight for their shipmates; airmen for their squadron,” he writes. For many, monarchy and the British connection remain an abstraction, one likely to grow ever blurry and distant in the coming years.

But the word is not meaningless to a navy man I talked to, who works at CFB Esquimalt with the training ketch HMCS Oriole. “Gives us pride,” he said. “Sounds better than Maritime Command, Maritime Operations Group 4.” He paused. “MAROPSGRU 4.”

Not that the renaming will eliminate the military’s penchant for acronyms.

Hard to know what my old man would have said about the return of the royal designation. He liked tradition, but he also was a Canadian nationalist. I know one thing. On Remembrance Day, he paused to remember the veterans, his own father, who came home a changed man, and all the others who never made it home.

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