By Bernie Dawson – Saskatoon, Sask.
When I was growing up, I never really became too involved or thought too much about Nov. 11. The veterans I knew wouldn’t talk about the war. While you knew everything else about your dad and his travel friends, you just knew not to ask those questions.
You may have witnessed their curious combination of sadness and satisfaction, and you may have felt their unspoken comradeship, but you also wondered why they couldn’t share those feelings with their families.
As a young man, I had an experience that enabled me to connect a little better with those emotions. It was 1964 and I was stationed at No. 1 Wing at Marville, France, with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). One of my duties was being assigned to honour guard duties, which I really enjoyed as I loved the travelling. What an experience it was.
Bad at practice, good on parade
We travelled all over Europe marching at all types of parades, funerals, and march-pasts. They just pointed us and we marched. We had our own bus with 33 men, three officers, some food, and a lot of beer. The other half of our troop consisted of the marvelous No. 1 Wing pipe and bugle band who travelled in their own bus.
They went everywhere we went. How I loved that band. It always amazed me how they sounded so bad at practice and so good on parade. I still can become starry-eyed whenever I hear bagpipes.
We were sharp and proud in our dress blue-and-white accessories. Our 303 rifles were fitted with realistic rubber bayonets; not that we ever cut ourselves, just the guys in front of us.
Air had a distinct smell
On Nov. 11, we were to march with the Belgium and Dutch honour guards at a Canadian graveyard at Bruges outside Ghent, Belgium. Everything proceeded smoothly, and we were standing easy waiting for the laying of the wreaths.
It was a beautiful day, crisp blue sky and warm sun. You could feel the heat on your shoulders and smell the unique aroma of gun oil and shoe polish in the warm sunlight.
I started to read some the names on the cross in front of me. There were names just like ours, and I began to realize that it had actually happened. Men had died right there, never to return to their families who waited for them. It could have been dad or any of his friends.
The drone of a Dakota aircraft was heard directly overhead, and we were to present arms. A solitary bugle sounded the last post and 10,000 poppies flowed blood red out of the clear blue sky. Once again, the ground was stained crimson.
A wave of pride went through all of us, and with the best possible present arms, we honoured the valiant men who won the land and the hearts of these people. There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. The mournful lament of the solitary bugle echoed the fluttering of poppies descending on the rows of white crosses.
Our money was no good
After it was all over, we went to the nearby village where all the military personnel had tickets for a sandwich and two beer. We all ate and drank our fill. None of us had to use our tickets, and our money wasn’t any good. The cafe was full and there wasn’t any music played. We all sat shoulder to shoulder comrades in arms – Belgians, Dutch, and Canadians all united in our thoughts.
Then I felt it, that curious combination of sadness and satisfaction of a job well done, and I was able to understand some of what dad and his friends felt every Nov. 11. I thank God for the experience I had participated in and that unique moment when those poppies fell in that remote graveyard in Flanders Field in Belgium.
I will always remember.