Monday, November 12, 2007

War Story

In Honour of all war veterans and my Dad -

My father would never talk much about the war. For many years he refused to watch T.V. programs about it, be they comedies or documentaries. He became very uneasy on armistice day. Over the years I was able to find out a bit about his experiences, and to understand why he wanted to forget.

He spent the first years of the war in Canada, working as a clerk in the RCAF. There's a picture of him in uniform, brandishing a rifle, smiling proudly, the Halifax harbour behind him. Then he was moved to England where he again worked at a desk. There's a picture of him on a golf course in Ireland. Then the war was over, and somehow my father was sent to Germany with the occupation forces. Somehow he found himself with the liberation army at the gates of Bergen-Belsen. It was at that point, after the allies had won and the World War was over, that my father's war began.

He would never say what it was specifically that caused it to happen. Perhaps he looked too long into the face of one man, a man his own age, whose eyes were glazed with hunger and shadowed with pain, a man who looked a hundred years old, 'though he was only twenty. Perhaps my father looked into another face, one without any sign of emotion, of anguish nor compassion, a face which, though living, was dead. Perhaps he could not stop staring at the piles of dead bodies, the bones and skulls, or perhaps he was required to record the numbers, the unfathomable numbers. Perhaps he could not bear the smell from the crematoriums or perhaps it was the smiles, the smiles of survivors who welcomed their deliverers in silence. He would never say what it was, but something that day, in that place, made my father's mind stop. It stopped and could not go beyond the horror, the fear, the guilt.

I don't know how long he was in the psychiatric hospital. I know he was afraid to leave it, afraid even to go for a walk beyond the doors of the building. I know he could not sleep, that loud sounds sent him screaming. I know when he did leave and return home to his wife and children, he had not conquered his fears but buried them in a shallow grave. Many times they were resurrected and continued to plague him. I know in some ways he remained an unreachable stranger, even to those who had been closest to him.

Time heals and memories fade, but my father, that young man from Canada who never fired a gun in battle, would never talk much about the war. There are those who say we must talk about it, that the memories must never be allowed to fade, for if we forget such a past, the future will be in peril. They are right, but I wonder about the hope to which they cling. Will a generation that has not seen with its' own eyes nor felt with its' own heart have the courage, should circumstances demand, to stand and say with determination, "No. Never again?" Will all the television documentaries, all the books, all the trials be in vain after all? Perhaps that particular history will never repeat itself. But what about the other histories being lived now in so many parts of our world? Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Asia ...... Are we doing all we can to say no, or are we too comfortable, never having had to fire a gun in battle? Perhaps the real danger lies, not in forgetting the past, but in ignoring the present.

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The Koala Bear Writer said...

Just finished reading One Smooth Stone... very powerful! Looking forward to the sequel. :) I posted a review over on my blog.

Marci said...

Thanks for the great review, Bonnie! :)Marcia