A Remembrance Day Short Story
I grew up in Canada, and we called November 11, Remembrance Day, not Veterans Day. I’m an American citizen now, and I do appreciate the sacrifices of the US men and Women in the Armed Forces. But November 11, will always be Remembrance Day to me.
In Canada, the tradition is to wear a poppy on your lapel in the days leading up to November 11th. The poppy, as a symbol of World War I, as every Canadian school boy or girl knows, originates from the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Back in high school, I read the book Vimy by Pierre Berton about the famous Battle of Vimy Ridge. I have said, time and time again, that I didn’t know what it meant to be Canadian until I read that book. I highly recommend it, even if you aren’t Canadian. I’ve reread that book many times since then, but a few years ago, I loaned it to someone, and never got it back. I’ll have to track down another copy so I can read it again, soon.
In October, 2002, I had the honor and privilege to be able to visit the Vimy Ridge Memorial in France. I took this picture as I approached the memorial on a cold, calm morning while the sun rose to my right. I have a large version (of better quality) of this hanging on my office wall. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I cried then, and I’m tearing up a bit now as I write this.
While in high school, I wrote a short story called Saluting a Memory. It’s not the best writing I’ve ever done, but I have kept it around, and I’m not ashamed to show it to you now (though I did clean it up a bit for grammar, spelling and a few poorly worded sentences). I won second place with this story back in 1988 in the Lambton County Royal Canadian Legion Writing Contest, which I guess was my first ever contest win.
Saluting a Memory
He sat on the edge of his bed, ready for the familiar crack of joints that had accompanied the first movements of the morning for the past decade. He rose, wavered, and grasped the chair beside the bed. He felt the stiff, heavily starched collar of the blazer someone had set there for him. He glanced down at the dull, dark green uniform jacket he remembered so well. His fingers worked their way along the collar, with the embroidered insignias and the small, brass buttons. He tried to remember why it was out. What was the occasion? The number eleven flashed in his mind. The eleventh day of the eleventh month, eleven on the hour. His head snapped to attention. His right arm rose and he saluted a memory, crisply, precisely, as he had been taught so many years before. His arm dropped, slowly, silently, so as not to alert the Krauts to his position.
“Yes, general.” The cold wind blew through the open tent flaps from the frozen battlefield. Brief reports from the German-seeking six inch guns sounded to the west. He exited the tent, pulling his collar up as he did so. The world was silent for the most part. The Christmas Day truce slowed things down, but the battle never truly stopped.
He entered the maze of trenches that would carry him to the front, more than two miles away. A rat scrambled between the boards, ten feet in front of him. He paid no attention. He had a message—an urgent one—to deliver to the front. The frozen mud in the trench made the passage treacherous at points, but even with the truce, it wasn’t safe to be up top. He tensed as he neared the front. He had been here thousands of times for various reasons, but the place still got to the heart of him. He rounded a corner only to come face to face with an impenetrable wall of frozen blocks of French mud. Going all the way around would take twenty minutes. He decided to climb over. Ice covered the mound of slumped ground, and summiting took some work. It was then that he heard it—the whistle of an incoming shell. The “Widowmaker’s Whistle”, they called it. He dove back the way he came. The shell slammed into the earth as he fell back into the trench.
He moved around his room with relative ease. He slipped his pants on first, and struggled with the small button. His thumb slipped a couple of times, but he did it, just as he had thousands of times before. Next was his crisp, white, T-shirt—something that many take for granted now—but something that during the war was a luxury which very few had. He tucked it neatly into the loose pants. He reached for his shirt. These buttons were much more difficult. His arm grew tired. Like war had done forty-six years before, age had taken its toll. He used his chin to hold the shirt together as he passed each button through the fabric button hole, but managed by perseverance, plain and simple. He sat down in his chair, careful not to wrinkle anything, as he proceeded to put on his spit-and-polish clean shoes, just as they taught him to do in boot camp. He remained Army, through and through.
He rose again, with fewer perceivable cracks this time. He shuffled across his room, until he stood before the mirror. His hand slowly moved up, towards his face and the remnants of his repulsive scar. He knew every bump and hollow of this souvenir from many years ago.
He felt heavy, very heavy. He was cold, almost frozen. He tried to move but couldn’t. He remembered the sound of the shell, and diving, and… nothing. His hands began to numb. He heard voices, and tiny taps near him. He began to move his ankles, the only thing that seemed free. Breathing became incredibly hard. His lungs screamed for air. He began to kick harder. “He’s alive! Dig faster!” unknown voices rumbled through the dirt. Someone grabbed onto his feet, and began to pull. He slid backwards. Movement became easier. Cries for a medic echoed down the trench. Finally, fresh air reached his lips. He sucked in the air in big gulps. Pain radiated from dozens of places, but at least he was alive.
He tried the top button. Twice, three times he failed, but he was not a quitter. On the fourth time he succeeded. Proud of his achievement, he let out a brief smile. Next was a clip on tie, which he did quite easily. A normal person wouldn’t have done it any faster or better. He turned and picked up the jacket, deftly put it on, and faced the mirror once more. He admired the medals and ribbons which he had cleaned and polished the night before. Something was missing. He didn’t know what it was, but it was something important.
He combed his hair—what was left of it—and picked up his beret, which had also been picked clean of lint the night before. He scanned himself in the mirror. His face became younger, and again he was remembering the war.
The field hospital was set in a one room school house. He spent three days of the hardest days of his life there. People died around him, crying out in there last moments before succumbing to the pain. He cried because he could do nothing for them. He never cried once for himself. Not one tear. He had been through worse, and he was still alive.
His stay was brightened by a visit from an eight year old French girl named Maria. She gave him something simple… a flower. A small orange flower… the symbol not of death, but rebirth. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him, and he treasured that moment.
He reached just above the edge of the mirror, and plucked down what was missing: a small red-orange poppy; not the same one, mind you, but a close match. He carefully inserted it into his lapel, and the picture was complete.
An hour later, he strolled slowly down the city street, admiring his chosen country, a country he loved and fought for, and would do it again if he could. The smaller children stared at the stranger on sidewalk, with one arm and a crooked smile, and were frightened. He smiled and hoped they would never experience what he had, but could live a long and happy life in this free country called Canada.
To all those veterans, both alive and gone, today, I Salute you.