From My Aging Eyes

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all

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I was born before D-Day, before V-E Day, before V-J Day.  If you don’t recognize those occasions, you’re most likely younger than I.  World War II was the single biggest event in the lives of the generation before mine, and the year I entered the world, it was still raging on.

When I was born, I joined almost 2.5 billion other souls on the planet.  In North America, the average cost of a house like the one we eventually lived in was $3600, and the average annual wage was only $2000.  My future father-in-law, then a callow twenty-one-year-old, earned $800 that year, the first time he filed an income tax return.  A new car, for those who could afford one, cost about $900, and the gasoline to fuel it cost fifteen cents per gallon.  A bottle of Coca-Cola cost five cents.

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Among the people born in the same year as I (and you’ll recognize their names more readily than mine) were Arthur Ashe, Robert de Niro, John Denver, Bobby Fischer, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, John Kerry, Billie Jean King, Peter Marsh, Jim Morrison, and Lech Walesa.  Seven of them are no longer with us.

Major world leaders included William Lyon Mackenzie King here in Canada, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Franklin Roosevelt, Jan Christiaan Smuts, and Joseph Stalin—many of whom didn’t like each other at all.

Among the popular films my parents went to see in the year I was born were For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, Lassie Come Home, The Titanic, and the winner of the Academy Award, Mrs. Miniver.  Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller were music icons of the day, and Oklahoma opened on Broadway.

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Some of the most popular books published that year included A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted. A. Lawson.  My favourite (which, of course, I was not able to read until six or seven years later) was Thunderhead by Mary O’Hara.

The New York Yankees won the World Series that year, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, and Count Fleet won the Kentucky Derby, but both the U.S. Open in golf and Wimbledon in tennis were cancelled because of the war.

Invention, spurred on by the wartime effort, saw the development of the aqualung, the Colossus computer used to decode the German Enigma encryption, the ever-popular Slinky toy, and silly putty.  The Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, which cost almost two billion dollars, was well underway.

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Nachos were invented the year I was born, and remain popular to this day.  The ABC radio network began broadcasting that year, launched by the founder of the Life-Savers candy company.  The Philip Morris tobacco company unveiled an ad that, for the first time, acknowledged smokers’ cough, although they blamed it on other cigarette brands.  The chairman of IBM conceded that “…there is a world market for maybe five computers.”  And a Swiss chemist discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD—presumably on a trip.

I was born well before the following technological marvels we take for granted today became commonplace:  duct tape, television, Tupperware, credit cards, waterproof diapers, transistors, defibrillators, supersonic aircraft, cat litter, the Zamboni, crash-test dummies, aerosol paint, teleprompters, airbags, barcodes, heart-lung machines, WD-40, zipper storage bags, automatic sliding doors, radar guns, computers, hard disk drives, silicon chips, videotape, lasers, spandex, artificial turf, the Pill, LED’s, Buffalo wings, 8-track tapes,  CD’s, space travel, personal computers, the internet, and smartphones.

I was not, however, born before the Wright brothers first took flight (as my sons-in-law are wont to claim).

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But hey, lest this looking-back convey the impression that I long for the good old days, whatever they were, let me assure you that such is far from the truth.  In fact, as I approach my seventy-fifth birthday, I look forward to the changes yet to come—just as I marvelled at those occurring during my life so far—and with the same boyish enthusiasm as ever.

As Dylan so memorably wrote and sang, the times they are a-changin’.  But somewhere inside this gnarly old man, there still resides the precocious boy who spawned him, surprised he has not changed.

closing in on my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

man and boy1

          Have a happy birthday, old man!

 

For Always

A number of years ago, my grandchildren were visiting their Nana and me when November 11th rolled around.

“What’s ‘Membrance Day, Gramps?” the oldest asked.

Re-membrance Day,” I replied.  “It’s the day when we remember the soldiers who fought in the wars.”

“What are wars, Gramps?” the youngest asked.

I found it astounding, and heartbreaking, that they were still so innocent.  And I wished they could be so for always.

It was difficult to explain the premise of warfare to them—the sheer gall and hubris and stupidity of humankind in seeking to settle what are sometimes legitimate grievances by killing each other in remote fields of mud and gore.

I couldn’t convey the sense of awe that washed over me, when I had stood years before in one of the cemeteries where poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row—scarcely able to believe the enormity of the carnage.  Nor could I explain to them how I was brought to tears by the simple inscription on too many of those markers—

Here Rests in Honored Glory, A Comrade in Arms, Known But To God

unknown soldier

Despite the fact that they couldn’t really understand, I told them we try now to remember the men and women who gave up their lives in defense of our country and its values, in all the wars in which our soldiers took part.

“Why do we hafta remember them?”

“Well, I guess it’s because we hope we won’t ever have to fight a war again,” I said.

Even as I talked about it, the thought occurred to me that the war with the most significance for me is one I don’t really remember at all.

My parents did, though.  For them, it was the war, one of the most significant events in their lives, an event that shaped many of their attitudes and beliefs forever.

My recollection of that war has come through them, formed as impressions and feelings, prompted by bits of memorabilia, by oft-repeated stories, or by the singing of wartime songs.

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I have a picture in an old family album, a now-faded snapshot with large white borders and scalloped edges.  It was taken at Christmas time in my grandparents’ living room during the winter of ’44.  I’m in the picture, right in front on my mother’s lap, not yet two years old.  The whole family is gathered around us beside the Christmas tree.

My mother’s parents are there, and her three sisters.  Her sister-in-law and two of her cousins complete the group.  With the exception of my grandfather (and me, I suppose), there are no male persons in the picture…no sons, no brothers, no husbands.

Whenever I look at it, I try to imagine what that Christmas must have been like for my family, most of them younger than my own children now.  I think about a song that became popular around that time, a young soldier’s promise that, “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

I'll_Be_Home_for_Christmas_Bing_Crosby

 

So, when my young grandchildren asked about Remembrance Day, I tried to convey those same feelings to them.  Not what war was really like, because I don’t know.  Rather, how I still feel when I hear that song at Christmas time, or when I look again at that old snapshot.

I told them about my aunt who married her beau mere days before he shipped out, and that they didn’t see each other again for more than three years.  How he met her brother—his new brother-in-law—for the first time while they were both stationed in England.

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Not one of my family’s young soldiers was home for Christmas that year.  One of them, an uncle I might have grown to love, never did come home.

I remember hearing my parents talk of them long afterwards.  I’d hear words and phrases that prompted my recollections—words like wartime and overseas, or phrases such as V-E Day and killed in action.

“If Jimmy had come home from overseas,” they’d say, “he’d be almost eighty now.  Can you imagine!”

Together, they’d sit quietly, thinking back, I guess—remembering how it was.

I knew my grandchildren would not be able to comprehend a war that ended more than half a century before they were born, or even understand what their great-grandparents went through.  But, in hearing about it from me, I hoped they would develop some sense of the meaning of freedom and democracy, and of the sacrifices that were needed and made.

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And I hoped that, once they knew, perhaps they’d understand why we remember.

For always.