I can’t believe it’s already (nearly) November! And within this eleventh month is the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day” – a time and date set aside to mark the end of World War I. As the distance between us and that moment nears a century and several generations, how do we call to mind another important event that’s drifting beyond the scope of living memory?
I wasn’t around that long ago (although I’m getting to feel like my knees were…) but, luckily, a few life experiences help me span that distance so that I can remember too.
It’s known as Veterans Day here in the US – and it’s evolved into a day for honoring American veterans of all wars.Some of my deepest connections to the eleventh day have come through traveling – and quite by accident! But that often happens with me.
Like my first time visiting Canada on Remembrance Day. I went to play ice hockey and came home not just with one of my happiest tournament experiences, but also with the meaning behind the poppies I saw people wearing – and an appreciation for a poem.
While watching NHL games, I’d already noticed bright red poppies on the lapels of Canadian broadcasters this time of year – then I saw tons of them as I roamed the streets of Vancouver between games. I didn’t know how the poppies were connected with Remembrance Day until I found a display in a local museum that included the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian physician John McCrae. While serving in The Great War, he penned the haunting poem after the death in battle of a fellow countryman and, in it, he invokes the image of poppies blowing in the breeze among rows of crosses marking soldiers’ graves.
Now whenever I see a red poppy, I remember those soldiers and the duty to them that McCrae’s poem commands.
Films have also expanded my image of the First World War. We’re now a century removed from the grisly battles around the Belgian village of Passchendaele – but depictions in Canadian Paul Gross’s 2008 film of the same name bring to heartbreaking life the trials faced and sacrifice displayed there.
And back in 1981, Australian Peter Weir’s Gallipoli proved a gripping education for the teenaged me in the events and nature of war. Sporting a brand new driver’s license, I’d proudly driven with Mum to a little theatre in Berkeley to follow the journey of two young Aussies to World War I’s Turkish front. Like some of the film’s characters, I’m afraid I didn’t know much about why Australian boys would be fighting in Turkey – and I’d have stumbled as they did over the names of towns where battles were being fought.
But ever after, names like Gallipoli remain devastatingly clear to me. And in the wake of the film’s final tragic moments, I remember on the ride home keeping my new driver’s hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel while my shoulders still heaved with sobs as I thought on the terrible cost of war.
Some years later, a chance experience in London would bring that film to mind and hit me just as hard.
On November 11, 2003 – Armistice Day in Britain – I was in the middle of what I refer to as “the walk”. Being fortunate to have visited London a fair number of times over the years, it’s become a ritual for me to get re-acquainted with my most favorite city and all its historic splendor by strolling from Leicester Square to Trafalgar Square and on down to Westminster Bridge on the River Thames.
On this day, I’d begun as usual by hitting the Leicester Square discount ticket booth to get a seat for a West End play (Stones in His Pockets – a hilariously poignant night of theatre!).Next, I made my way to Trafalgar Square where I gave my customary salute to Admiral Nelson – as well as to local efforts at keeping the Square’s pigeon population under control. Then I continued down Whitehall, knowing I’d catch such sights as a resolute pair of Horse Guards keeping watch at their building, and perhaps some political doings outside Number 10 Downing Street.
I planned to hang the typical left at Parliament Square and head for the Thames – but this time, a different scene gave me pause. According to my journal, here’s what I’d unwittingly (well, half-wittingly, anyway) strolled into:
“Walked by the stone monument to “The Glorious Dead” [the Cenotaph] where the Queen and Prime Minister had lain wreaths. There was a bit of a crowd and I thought I’d be a stationary lemming and wait to see what happened.
Shortly before 11:00, traffic was stopped and the music of a lone bagpipe began. To that melancholy sound, four young guards led a procession of gray-haired veterans, some wives and some little children. Then everything stopped and silence was largely managed down to the sound of falling yellow leaves lighting on the ground.”
From the first forlorn strains of that bagpipe, my eyes were as misty as the London weather – and it wouldn’t be the only time that day. After completing “the walk”, my contentedly aimless wandering continued to pay off as I stumbled onto another landmark of the day:
Wandering along the newly dedicated monument, I studied each of the wreaths and little mementos that people must just have placed there – vivid color against the somber stone. I was especially struck by the photo of a fresh-faced young Aussie veteran. I hoped he’d gotten to live a long and happy life as my dear veteran Dad had – but probably he’d been among the fallen. I imagined how some family, feeling their loss of him as keenly as if it had just happened, might have traveled a great way to leave that photo and show they yet remembered his service. And a few years ago, having packed with me these bits of World War I perspective, I was thrilled to embark with my generous folks on a fancy Mediterranean cruise that would stop in a couple Turkish ports! On reading details in the brochure, including how the bed sheets would have a 300 thread count, I saw that en route between Kusadasi and Istanbul we’d be sailing through the Dardanelles past Gallipoli – something I sure never figured I’d do in my life! I didn’t bother to count threads but, on charting the course of our travels, I was disappointed to discover that our ship would pass that area in the middle of the night. Here was one of those historic places where destiny-shaping battles were waged and lives forever altered and lost – and I was meant to sail past it snuggled comfortably between 300 count sheets!
“I’d heard the Queen was spending her 11th hour opening a memorial for Australian soldiers – and I came across it! At Hyde Park by the Wellington Arch, they were just taking down the guest chairs around a red carpet leading to the memorial – a long wall with water flowing down some of the panels. It’s of green-gray granite on which the names of cities where Aussie veterans hailed from are etched, and over those the names of battles where they fought.”
I thought of trying to stay up and see what part of the coastline might be visible by night but, in the end – and as much as I wanted it to be otherwise – I slumbered while we cruised the Dardanelles…
I think it’s easy to become insulated that way from the past and its lessons. But, with a wealth of experiences through literature, film, travel and more than a little serendipity, I know at least some of what was happening in the world just about a hundred years ago, and I try to keep learning.
Those experiences are like poppies for my lapel – and, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, they’ll aid me in remembering as I ought to.