Fresh Old Ideas

By Arnold Malone

Standing proud before a backdrop of flowers on their home lawn, surrounded by trees that allowed ribbons of sunlight, stood a vibrant young man. He was dressed in uniform complete with a side cap. He had signed up for the Royal Canadian Air Force and was about to go to war in the defence of Europe, liberty and freedom.

The Second World War was in the midst of its awful activity. Young men and women from across Canada were called upon to stop the invasion of Europe. There was a great conflict in the heart of a mother who, with pride, knew that her son was about to defend a worthy value. It was also a gripping fear that when this day was over and her boy left for service there was no certainty that he would ever be seen again. 

The young man was my cousin. His family lived in a small village of 150 people. His dad owned the general store and post office.

In homes across Canada during those days the radio was our window to the war. Each day the noon news brought reports on our progress and our set-backs. It reported the numbers missing in action and those confirmed dead. 

At noon we ate our meal without making the slightest sound while the news was broadcast. Any report of a missing Canadian plane was a cause for anxiety. 

Then one day in 1943 our relatives got the awful telegram. Their son was missing in action. A few days later there was a second telegram — he was confirmed dead. 

I was five years old at his funeral and I did not understand why my cousin was not present for his event or why his mother was sobbing uncontrollably. 

In 2019 Susan and I toured some war cemeteries in the Netherlands, Germany and France. The gigantic monument near Arras, France is a First World War memorial to our success in capturing Vimy Ridge at a cost of 3,600 Canadian lives along with 7,000 wounded after the French and British armies failed to remove the entrenched Germans.

In Germany we toured a Canadian war cemetery that was about the size of two city blocks. Row after row of unending headstones each scripted with a name and a date of death. 

Each headstone was a marker for a mother’s grief, a father’s pain and a family’s empty chair. 

We walked beside the graves with whispered speech. Even amoung others we were utterly alone. Silence rang in our ears. This immaculate area of patterned headstones marked the price of freedom. So many mothers – so many families – cried the pain of reality. Families by the thousands aching with emptiness. Just unending grief. In that cemetery we found my cousin’s grave. On his headstone was his name along with the words, “died March 5th, 1943 an Officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force; age 23.”

Like intruders we walked in this impeccable setting. Headstones behind us, beside us and without sense they diminished to a far-off boundary. On the tombstones were the names of our youth. Ages inscribed: 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23. Some graves were grouped with five or six headstones clustered together. The aircraft was known but the deceased were not recognized. Imagine back home those worried families and their endless waiting.

That day, we were in just one Canadian cemetery; across Europe there are 62. Victory does not assure freedom. Freedom must be defended generation after generation. Through responsible caring for one another and with our choice to abide by rules may we learn to live in communion. May our thoughtful determination allow us to triumph beyond guns and bombs. 

So, this question arises, “If that was the sacrifice, then what now is our responsibility?”