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I Remember

 

In the early nineties I wrote a commentary for Remembrance Day called " I Remember."  It was presented on my radio program on CFRB and provoked an enormous audience response. I was also a finalist for the Gordon Sinclair ACTRA award for outspoken commentary that year. Many letters and requests for cassette copies were sent to the radio station by people of all ages.  At a future date I intend to post those letters, especially those from war vets themselves.  I invite you to download free of any charge the MP3 and text posted on this website for your own use.  However, if you are so moved you can make a donation to any veteran's organization or charity.  If you have any comments or remarks please address them to this web site and I will try to answer them.

 

Listen to Fred Napoli reading this story:

 

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Extra: Fred reads, "In Flanders' Fields".

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“I Remember”

I was seven years old in the dying days of world war two.  I remember our lined workbooks at school and the thick yellow pencils they gave us to write with.  I remember our well scarred desks, autographed with the signatures of now young men dying across the sea somewhere for freedom.  I remember that we observed a moment’s silence every November the eleventh to commemorate the sacrifices they made for their country.  I’m not sure of this, but I think we were sometimes given a half day off school to mark the occasion.
Remembrance Day to me and my chums meant...a holiday!  I remember for years after and on into early adulthood, the day came like a cousin, many times removed and strange to me.  Like so many others I politely observed it’s presence, but had no real connection or understanding of it.  I took notice that on this day each year older men wore medals on their overcoats and jackets, and that some cried tears at the moment when the bell sounded the eleventh hour.  I remember hearing the poem “In Flanders Fields” every November for so many years and being moved by  the words without knowing why.
In keeping with the spirit of the moment I bowed my head in silence obediently every year when the bell sounded and promptly forgot about the occasion moments later.
What could I know of war!  What does anyone who has not fought to live, seen death and destruction, lost someone dear...know of war?  Nothing.  We know nothing of war and even less of freedom!

I remember the young widows of my childhood, dressed in black wool in the middle of summer.  I remember the texture and the look of army greatcoats and the smell of black boot polish, the sound the half-moon shaped pieces of silvery metal on the heels and toes of army boots made on wooden floorboards and sidewalks.  I can still remember the almost celebrity status of soldiers, newly enlisted or home on furlough.  We children would gather round them, drinking in their stories like soda pop, hanging on their every word, anxious to run errands for them.
Looking at their pictures in the old family photo album, summoning images more real in my mind, I remember their faces...confused, bewildered, and excited, yet for all their fear, still somehow brave.  Many were boys too soon called upon to put youth aside and take up the duty of men.  Now, looking at my words as they appear on the page before me, I am overwhelmed by the cynicism of these times.
I think of the almost obscene ignorance of those who did not serve, who did not lose something or someone precious to war, and I count myself among them.  I am not proud of my ignorance.  I would not confuse honoring the memory of veterans with propaganda favoring war and violence. Neither would I glorify war.  I could not, because I remember the faces of their fathers...the first world war veterans.  In my mind’s eye I see them studying their offspring.  Their eyes speak volumes.
I remember their regimental buttons and old tweed jackets.  A cigarette lighter with a crest.  I remember the quiet sadness in their faces.  Theirs was the Great War.  

The war to end all wars.  It was supposed to be the last.  They paid a terrible price so it would never happen again, and it was happening again, and now their sons would go in their places.  Yet, for all this, I remember the stoic silence of their expressions, the gentle pride that for all they were promised and not given, for all they had sacrificed, they would set aside their private hopes and ambitions and stake their lives again...for freedom.
I remember years later, when my own son was almost a man, I said that if I had to, I would die so that he could live.  I told him that if it came to a choice between him and me...I would die so he could live.  I wanted him to see that he had a responsibility to those he loved too!  I wanted him to understand that every war, that all wars are born of indifference, and that we get there by deluding ourselves that we are not responsible for our actions, that we don’t have to put something back for what we take.  
I wanted him to understand that we keep losing our freedom because we take it for granted,  because we lose sight of its priceless value and what it costs to win it back when it is taken away.  But, what could any young person know of such things?  Until we have children of our own and guide them safely through their pre teen years and their terrifying entry into the larger world of the Pop Culture, how can we know the tiniest part of what it means to lose a son or a daughter or a husband to the insanity of war!  What could anyone possibly know of such things until one’s own children are born, until one must do whatever is necessary to preserve their safety and their right to live.  

Young men and women haven’t  been alive long enough to measure one age against another.
I remember just before the end of the second world war that every boy in our neighborhood wanted a pair of high cut leather boots for Christmas.  Our feet froze in them.  But, we wanted them because they were what the soldiers wore.
Soldiers were considered worthy role models in those days when the indifference of whole nations led to the growth of Hitler’s regime and genocide against the Jews and other ethnic groups,.  The time came when the only way left to stop the Nazi war machine was with soldiers.  They were mostly enlisted men, many of them mere boys.  We were proud of them.  Now, in this often ignorant time of plenty some segments of society suggest that it is inappropriate to honor soldiers.  Some social activists and arm chair strategists believe that if we can stamp out aggressive tendencies everywhere we may eliminate or prevent war.  Better that we should lend our efforts to eliminating rampant consumerism, greed and the idea that we are somehow not responsible for our own actions.
There is a certainty in my mind on this day of Remembrance that gives me cause for shame.  I remember John MaCrae’s words from Flanders Fields;

“ If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields.”  
If the war dead we honour could be restored to life now, I cannot help but think they would see us as...the enemy.  We have broken faith with them and with those who survived and came home.

Many war veterans received only token compensation for what they sacrificed and our debt to them remains unpaid.
In the dying days of the second world war I remember that “the family” was everything, and that the streets of our neighbourhood were safe because the whole community was like an extended family.  Often, we did not lock our doors at night.  Women and children walked safely home from the movies or went to the store after dark for some last minute confection or grocery item.  The streets were safe for everyone... except bullies and thugs.  The bottom line truth where I grew up was, “harm one of us and you harm us all!“
I was too young to know then that the words of Winston Churchill’s wartime speech to the nation that I heard on the radio didn’t just apply to his beloved England.

“We shall defend every village, every town and every city. The vast mass of London itself--if fought street by street, could easily devour an entire hostile army;
and we would rather see London laid in ruins and ashes, than that it should be tamely and abjectly enslaved.”  I didn’t understand that he was saying if they realize they will have to kill us all, they won’t get out of one neighborhood alive.

In later years I understood that the bulldog warrior was giving voice, although more eloquently, to the most sacred beliefs of my parents and grandparents and of all the people who built this country and most especially those who gave their lives to preserve our freedom.

Churchill was saying, ”This is where we live.  You cannot do that here.   Harm one of us and every citizen shall be your enemy.  Magnify your attack and we shall bring the war to you.  We shall come to where you live...no matter what the cost!  In a dark moment of history, Churchill said of the enemy, “ they shall reap the whirlwind.”  The firebombing of the city of Dresden fulfilled that terrible prophecy.  
I remember watching grandpa become older and then frail as I grew into manhood.  I remember the stories about him working for two dollars a week less than he could have collected by putting his family “on relief.”  You couldn’t pay him to do substandard work.  I saw with my young and inexperienced eyes that he had an idea that money was never the measure of worth and human dignity.  He had an idea that excellence could not be bought so cheap.  He had an idea that -- if necessary, freedom was worth dying for.
On Remembrance day while the bell sounds against the old silence, I honour those men and women who gave up their lives for our freedom.
I honour those who made it back home. I honor grandpa and grandma and my mother and my uncles and aunts who kept me safe and free until I could look after myself.  
By the standards of those times I sincerely believe we are
are losing a modern war right here where we live. I believe we are being diverted and outflanked.  Like the fall of Paris we are being drawn into concentrating our forces elsewhere while the old fable of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is becoming...the Hamelin Prophecy!  The children are being piped away!  If we are the ship of state, then the children are the lifeboats!  They are the future.  

There isn’t any issue more important than our children.  Corrupt them and we damn the future.  The prevailing truths of the Pop Culture are not being called to account.  
In these so called enlightened times the hearts and minds and the innocence of our children are routinely exploited for money and profit.  
The very idea of narcotics and other drugs being routinely directed at school children ought to be enough to raise the dead.  
How dare I address such an issue?  I have a holy right.  I am a father!  To see my children safely to adulthood I could not relax my vigilance for a moment.  Now I worry that the freedoms I took for granted as a boy are slipping away without a whisper of protest.  
I wonder if I could bear the experience of standing silently in Flanders Fields on the day of Remembrance imagining what so many who sacrificed their lives would say to us in the here and now... if they could.
Imagine a soldier who has survived the war and comes home to find that more than half a century had passed for everyone else during the six years he has been away.

“Watch out for my family,” he might have said to those he left behind.  “Look after things till I get back...if I get back.”  
Now imagine his eyes as he looks upon what the rest of us take for granted...drugs in schools, the proliferation of street gangs, routine violence against women and the elderly, war games for children, gratuitous violence as mass entertainment on television and the internet .  

If he could speak, I wonder, would he perhaps say,
“I am a guy who gave up my personal freedom and crossed an ocean to fight a monster and his war machine to keep them from landing here.  I want someone to explain to me why the rest of you gave up so easily what I was willing to die to preserve.  I want to know why people buy a poppy and bow their heads on Remembrance day and forget so quickly what so many of us died for.  I want to know where they got the idea that soldiers create war.
My god!  I didn’t ask to be a soldier.
I never wanted to kill another...human being!
Oh dear Jesus!  
Doesn’t anyone remember.... why this happened!

copyright ( 2010) by Fred Napoli

 

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Copyright © 2010 Fred Napoli. Site by Cool Site Man.