Remembering Johnnie

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It was my nightly ritual, lying in bed in the dark listening to the radio.

Still in high school and living at home, I had finally exercised some autonomy by moving my bedroom to the basement of our townhouse, two full floors from the rest of the family. It was my sanctuary, surrounded by my books, my mattress resting on the floor, the sounds of Toronto’s 1050 CHUM filling the room, disturbing no one.

The music stopped, as it often would for commercial breaks, but this time for a news announcement. Odd for this time of night.

“Reports are coming in that John Lennon has been shot and killed outside of his Dakota apartment in New York City.”

The air then hung silent—for a moment, a minute, an hour, I can’t say for certain—and then the room filled with the simple piano chords that start the song Imagine.

I knew of John Lennon, at that point in my life. Knew his songs from years of listening to the radio.

And I was well aware of The Beatles; from their music, their movies and even the lesser remembered cartoon series of my childhood.

But where my awareness of John Lennon and The Beatles had been a passive thing up to that dark night of December 8, 1980, something changed in me upon learning that Lennon was dead. A fire to understand, to turn my awareness into knowledge, to experience more kindled inside me, overtaking me.

The world had lost a beautiful, elegant poet who I was later to learn could also be a fragile, ego-centric asshole.

The world had lost a magnificent artist who stood atop a mountain of pain, grief, anger, vindictiveness and sorrow.

And in a Lennon-esque stroke of irony, the world had lost a man who had finally come to grips with his frailties, who had finally learned to express love and not just demand it, who could offer his talents to the world as a gift and not a response.

Although at times I found myself worshipping John Lennon as a god, I now remember the artist as a man.

Later tonight, I will play Imagine and I will remember.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Falling into autumn

Last week, I took my camera out to catch a glimpse of nearby Toronto’s Kew Gardens and the fading remnants of our Remembrance Day commemorations.

Blood red poppies

Remembrance Day

Every year, as October transitions into November, I go in search of a new red poppy pin in honour of Remembrance Day on November 11. It is a tradition in my family and across Canada to append the crimson flower to our lapel as a reminder of the bloody sacrifices made a century ago.

I also wear it to honour my great-grandfather Francis Sowden, who came home from the Great War, unlike so many others, including siblings on my great-grandmother’s side who are sadly just names without faces to me so many years later.

I am one of few in my generation to have known Francis Sowden.

I am one of few in my generation to have known Francis Sowden.

Recently, I have heard people complain that the commemorative symbol of the poppy has been co-opted by those who want to hail it as a symbol of the glory of serving in the military, if not actually the glory of war itself. This bothers me.

I greatly thank all those who have, do and will serve in the military both in Canada and abroad, many risking their lives to keep others safe. Although I was an unthinking idiot in my youth, I have learned that these people, while frail humans, are noble titans who see conflict as a last resort.

For all that nobility, however, the poppy must remain a separate symbol.

A painting from the Royal Ontario Museum that haunts my dreams. (sadly, I cannot remember artist)

A painting from the Royal Ontario Museum that haunts my dreams. (sadly, I cannot remember artist)

The poppy reminds us of the horrific toll of war. It is a crimson stain upon our lapels that taints us all and reminds us of the fragility of the peace that surrounds us. The bloody hue taunts our civilized smugness with a warning of how easily we can fall into the pit of violence, whether as individuals, communities or countries.

While we wear the blood red poppy to honour the fallen of World War I, we also wear it as a badge of shame that the war ever took place, and that the war to end all wars wasn’t.

This dual purpose must never be diminished. We must strive to be better.

And next year, as October transitions into November, I will go in search of a new red poppy pin in honour of Remembrance Day on November 11.

I will never forget.

A cemetery near my home reminds me of the sacrifices

A cemetery near my home reminds me of the sacrifices

The Pentagon on a Tuesday morning

pentagon-02

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001–as we did every weekday–my wife and I rode the bus from our home in Northern Virginia to the Pentagon Metro Station, where I still daily marveled at my proximity to one of the most iconic buildings on the planet. As I described it to my then mother-in-law: “big building, five sides, it’s in all the movies”.

Moving with the crowd, we descended into the station to ride the train, parting company in town as she headed to work and I headed for an Amtrak train to Baltimore. It was Day Two of a scientific conference that I was covering for my publication MDD.

An hour after we got off that bus and headed into the tunnel at Pentagon Metro Station, the plane struck one of those five sides.

Below is the latter half of my report on that conference. The first half was a litany of instrumentation, seminars and breakthroughs that immediately became unimportant to everyone in attendance.

But the focus on the show floor quickly shifted from biomolecular screening to terrorism. People by the dozens flipped open cell phones, holding fingers to open ears in an attempt to better hear dial tones that were not there, moving swiftly from the floor into the atrium hunting in vain for a signal from above.

A voice boomed from the public address system letting us know that the impossible had indeed happened and that planes had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All speech ceased as a thoughtful pall descended on the floor, with only the perpetual whine and click of the robotic plate handlers breaking the silence. Finally, the voice broke through to tell us that it would try to keep us up-to-date as information came in.

But the waiting became too much as the line for computer access became longer and the cell phones were intermittent comfort at best. A crowd formed around the booth hosted by Beckman Coulter, which had turned its large screen monitors to CNN, and we all stood transfixed as we witnessed the madness that was New York. Some of the witnesses wiped away tears while others whispered silent prayers.

By noon, the day was over and convention center staff moved through the hall trying to herd attendees into the atrium while company representatives threw swatches of cloth over the equipment and turned off the lights. Without a defined place to go, however, the attendees milled about the atrium for several minutes before finally flowing as if by gravity into the streets around the convention center.

The conference that started with such high scientific hopes was interrupted by an act of insane brutality.

0 1 0 9 1 4 - F - 8 0 0 6 R - 0 0 3    FBI agents, fire fighters, rescue workers and engineers work at the Pentagon crash site on Sept. 14, 2001, where a high-jacked American Airlines flight slammed into the building on Sept. 11.  The terrorist attack caused extensive damage to the west face of the building and followed similar attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.   DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill.  (Released)

DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill. (Released)

Thank you

Varied of tradition, but singular in purpose.

Varied of tradition, but singular of purpose.

I just walked to the grocery store without a second thought beyond wondering whether milk would be on sale or if I could get there and back before it started to rain.

Thank you.

Last night, friends and I filmed puppetry vignettes in which we satirized recent political events and social attitudes, laughing freely and openly.

Thank you.

On Saturday, I met a friend for bacon sandwiches and then walked home along the beach, smiling at kids playing in the sand and dogs excitedly greeting each other.

Thank you.

Today, my biggest concern is whether I will get off my backside and walk two blocks to change my cellphone carrier or if I’d rather just bitch about the one I am presently using.

Thank you.

My home hasn’t been destroyed. I’m not worried about my next meal. My family hasn’t been slaughtered. No one will kick in my door because I made a joke online. And you and I can completely disagree on local, national and world politics and social trends.

Thank you.

And even with all that, five “thank yous” is not nearly enough to express my gratitude to the men, women and families who have sacrificed everything so that all of the above is true.

I live in Canada. It is Memorial Day in the United States. And none of that matters. The international boundary does not make any of what I have written less true.

We may choose different days and express our feelings in different ways, yet we have but one purpose: gratitude.

Thank you.

From Ottawa's Parliament Hill to Washington's National Mall to France's Vimy Ridge, we must never forget and always be grateful.

From Ottawa’s Parliament Hill to Washington’s National Mall to France’s Vimy Ridge, we must never forget and always be grateful.

Trench – A short story (Part Two)

trench2

(Click here for Part One)

At the sound of distant splashing, Francis opened his eyes. His face had slowly deformed the mud until it almost seemed a mask in which he might have suffocated. Trying to turn his head, he winced. Somewhere in the night, it seemed, his bones and muscles had fused to become an almost immobile mass.

Slowly, painfully, he pulled his arms to his chest and pushed himself up onto his knees. His body wanted to scream but his instincts said he needed to remain silent.

His world was a grey cloud. As it often did, a heavy morning fog had settled into the trenches, blurring the lines of reality and imagination, preventing the senses from reaching more than a half-dozen feet in any direction. The light said it was day, but that was where his universe stopped.

The splash sounded again, closer. Francis had seconds to debate friend or foe. He opted for safety, launching himself across the gap to the other side of the trench, burying himself behind the remnants of crates. Silence was key.

German voices pierced the fog. At least he assumed they were German. He knew Welsh and English, but just enough of the words sounded familiar to suggest he wasn’t hearing French.

His heart was ready to explode and he willed his breathing to calm, the rapid exhalations forming eddies in the fog that he was sure would give away his position.

From the mists, two boys in German uniforms emerged, poking their rifles into the detritus that lined the trench, presumably looking for food or ammo. They plodded through the puddles, secure in each other’s company, unaware of the din they created.

One soldier cried out and attacked the side of the trench.

His compatriot turned to find him tugging at the buried corpse. Placing his rifle to one side, he joined the other and between the two of them, they pulled the dead soldier out, the mud protesting their invasion with a loud sucking noise.

The first soldier reached inside the dead man’s great coat, feeling around blindly until his hand lighted on his quarry. Smiling at his partner, he extracted a sodden square of leather, teasing apart its folds and sliding out military script. His partner, meanwhile, was filling his pockets with items from the dead man’s kit.

Francis watched the vultures loot the corpse, his mind racing to comprehend the incomprehensible. This was one of their own.

He was as surprised as the German soldiers when the chest of one caved in at the bullet wound. The recoil of his rifle telling Francis that he had pulled the trigger.

By the time the unwounded soldier figured things out and was rising to his feet, he too found himself with a bullet in the chest. He gaped at Francis, who slowly emerged from his hiding place, and his eyes rolled into his head as he fell to his knees and then face down in the mud.

Francis shook, bracing himself against the crates lest he too collapse into the puddle. The dead soldiers—the men he had killed—lay at his feet. Francis tried to feel anguish at his crime. He tried to feel joy at his survival. He felt nothing.

Not cold. Not wet. Not even numb. His world had closed in on him, smothering him.

This was the first time Francis had fired in battle, all previous conflicts amounting to little more than scurrying from trench to trench, fox hole to fox hole, keeping you head low lest it be removed. The first time Francis had taken a human life, and yet he was intrigued that he felt no different than had he just slaughtered a hog for its meat or put down a rabid dog.

Francis dragged the soldiers onto their drowned comrade, laying their rifles next to them. He then stood silently, scanning the air for any sound, the splash of footsteps racing to the rifle shots. He heard nothing.

He pulled aside the coat of one soldier to find a filthy uniform underneath, not just torn in places but the material actually rotting away. A photo dangled precariously from the soldier’s pocket. He retrieved it and saw a youth, the soldier, standing in front of a portly woman near a well. He wondered if this was the boy’s mother. Flipping it over, the back was inscribed with German.

Without knowing why, Francis pocketed the photo and rose to his feet. As he lifted and flipped over the soldier’s military kit, he was startled by the rumble of artillery in the mists far ahead. The line had apparently moved in the night. Time to rejoin his unit.

Shouldering the German kit and his rifle, Francis stepped over the fallen soldiers, picked his way past the puddles and dissolved into the mists.

*****

Two months ago, while organizing my grandmother’s things after her funeral, I found an ancient, moth-eaten bag in her attic. Opening it, I discovered a German bible and a mixture of English and German war rations, as well as a photograph of a boy and his mother.

The back was inscribed in German, which I asked a neighbour to translate for me.

“Be safe, my beloved boy, and come home soon. Mama.”

No name. No date. Just a message of love and worry.

That my great-grandfather had his kit and photo suggested the boy did not make it home and his mother’s heart broke.

I keep the photo with me as a constant reminder of the sacrifices made on both sides. Sacrifices that let me lead the life I do.

I will never forget that.

 

Please note: This story is a fiction, although my great-grandfather Francis Sowden did serve in the first World War.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission, but utmost respect and reverence.)

Forgotten tribute

Railway 4

A nation born

On the backs

Of men not welcome.

Forgotten thanks

Never remiss,

Never too late.

Humble peace for your

Nation-building sacrifices

[Dedicated to the sacrifices of the Chinese population within Canada as they helped build the railway system that connected the country shore to shore, as commemorated in an art instillation in downtown Toronto]

Building a trestle, the basis of a bridge perhaps

Building a trestle, the basis of a bridge perhaps

A lone man stands in the line of fire should that rope fray

A lone man stands in the line of fire should that rope fray

His safety harness, a lone hand

His safety harness, a lone hand