Thursday, November 09, 2006

Remembrance Day

Well, it's about time I sat down and wrote a decent post. This one has been brewing for a while so sit down and hold on tight.

My thinking is often elliptical in nature. It jumps around, connecting the dots in strange ways with a logic that often escapes everyone but me. I can't explain it any better than that. Sometimes, it's something as simple as a single word or phrase that triggers a jump and then my mind goes off full tilt in some seemingly random direction. This, of course, is just a convoluted way of saying that I let my mind wander. Especially when I am walking.

Yesterday, I was walking home from the grocery store, listening to my mp3 player and marvelling at the newly bare trees. It being early November, my thoughts soon turned to Remembrance Day and veterans. This, in turn, led me to ponder a phenomenon I've been noticing recently. Perhaps, it's because I live in Toronto and there are just more of them, but it seems like a lot of Legion Halls are closing down. My gut instinct is to be saddened. The nostalgic in me cringes at these closings, mourning the loss of tradition and history that the Legion signifies.

With more thought, though, I realized that there is something good to be said of these closings. It's a sign that our generations of veterans are growing smaller and older. It's a sign that, in Canada at least, we have not engaged in a major armed conflict since the early fifties. While it's sad to see the Legions close, it is heartening to think that they are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Or they were, at least, before the Afghanistan adventure, but I will save that for another blog post.

One short mental hop away and I started thinking of what the Legion means and of how it was once a crucial part of life in many small towns. I was born in a small town in Northern Ontario. My father and his father were born in an even smaller Northern Ontario town. In both of these towns, the Legion was the social life for a certain generation of men.

My grandfather's father was a Highland Scot who came to Canada later in his life, leaving one family behind to eventually start another in Canada. He had fought in the Great War. When he came to Canada, he travelled around looking for work and eventually wound up in Nakina.

Nakina is a tiny village in Northwestern Ontario. It was originally a railway town, a place to fuel and service the steam engines that once crossed the country. Like many northern towns, Nakina was at one time a thriving place, with restaurants, clothing shops and even a movie theatre. Though never large, it had all one could need in a town. This was good, as there was no road into town, only the tracks, so you could not just drive to the next town to buy stuff.

When my great-grandfather settled there, he began working in the railway shops. He married a Finnish woman and started a family. When it came time to retire from the shops, he worked as a bartender in the Legion. As he had hired on late in life, he was not eligible to earn a pension from the railway. To their credit, the railway managers did set him up with a limited rail pass to recognize his years of service.

Nowadays, Nakina is a Hamlet that survives mainly by catering to fishing and hunting camps. The freight trains have not stopped there in almost a quarter century and much of the business and many of the residents have filtered out. While my grandparents left Nakina in the late 60's, they still kept close ties to the town. Though they had left the town three decades earlier, my grandmother was buried there. My grandfather still makes at least a yearly visit.

As a kid and even into my teens, I would sometimes travel with my grandparents to Nakina, going on long road trips through Northern Ontario. Up over Lake Superior we would go, crossing the rocky backbone of the Canadian Shield. There would be fishing and storytelling and visiting people that knew me better than I knew them. While my duties as a child were ceremonial, such as holding the map to roads my grandfather could drive with his eyes closed, I eventually became co-driver.

Visiting my grandparents' friends was not always the most enjoyable of times. It's not that I didn't like the people we visited, it's just that I have a hard time being comfortable around people I barely know. The fact that I was often the youngest person in the room by four or more decades did not help matters. Conversations were a stream of names, events and places that I could only grasp at in fleeting moments, like watching a tv with really bad reception.

To counter this, I would excuse myself and go for a walk. I would explore the town that three generations of my family knew so intimately. I would try to imagine how it looked back then, how it smelled and felt and sounded. While my grandparents were rehashing the tales of long ago, I would be outside, chasing the ghosts of my imagination.

The thing about northern towns in summer is that you never truly leave the cold behind. Even in August, you could face a cold snap. On warm days, the evenings can turn cool. On cold days, the evenings turn bitter. This suited me quite well as I've always preferred the cool of autumn to the heat of summer.
I am thinking of one time in particular, one of the last times I made the journey. When I ventured out, the night was definitely feeling more like fall than summer. It was a windy night and the streets were empty. Most houses I passed were dark except for the ghostly blue flicker of televisions lighting the living room windows. It was a perfect night for wandering and thinking.
When I was younger, I used to toy with the idea that we all leave invisible traces, footprints of sorts, wherever we go. I liked the notion that somehow there would be something left of us to mark our passing, some memory, some echo to tell the world that we were there. And then you could ponder the layers of these prints crossing each other in knots and tangles, each one of them saying "I was here." It's odd and impractical - do I really want a record of every trip to the washroom? - but it can also be a comforting thought.
This walk, then, was my attempt to follow a few of these trails. I wasn't just chasing the dead. To me, northern towns are just as haunted by the people who left town as they are by the people who never will. And on a night like this, I could hear that in the wind, the shadows of the living whispering to the ghosts of the dead.
I went downtown, down by the tracks. I walked on the shoulder of the road though it really did not matter. If I were to lie down in the middle of the road, I'd probably stand as good a chance of starving to death as I would of being run over. I wandered up to the Legion Hall.
In front of the Legion is a monument dedicated to all the residents of Nakina who fought in the World Wars. These monuments are so ubiquitous that they are easily ignored, only remembered in November when they are honoured with wreaths. How often do we pass by them, knowing what they are but never really seeing or reading them? "Lest we forget" indeed.
The monument in Nakina, like the town it represents, is not big. What it does have, and I checked, is my great-grandfather's name. I walked up to it and touched it. I traced the letters with my fingers - a vaguely familiar name carved in stone - and thought of my great-grandfather, a man I have never met. I did not really think of him as a soldier. While it would be fitting to think in such a way, the truth is I know so little of him that I have a hard time even imagining him as my grandfather's father. As far as the war goes, he went, he fought, was injured, fought again and lived. He rarely talked about it to his children and about the only record left of his service are the discharge papers my great-grandfather received when the fighting was done that my grandfather still has. And, of course, there is his name in stone.
To me, that is what Remembrance Day is - names in stone, a physical reminder of past lives. And when I pass by one of these monuments, I often stop to read some of the names, to imagine lives lost in times that were not so different from our own. I take a few minutes to read names and think of these people I never will meet in much the same way that I hope someone reads my great-grandfather's name from time to time.

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