Remembrance Day

My grandfather, William Delmer Howlett, was always the quiet type.

After I was an adult, I asked my mother if he’d ever been in a plane crash during the war, and she said yes. I later asked my grandfather to tell me about the time he was in a plane crash. “Which one?” Was his response.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been in his shoes, at 18, on a ship, on the way over to the theatre of war in Europe. My biggest worry at that time in my life was about trying to get into a university.

My grandfather flew as the navigator on a Halifax bomber. They mostly flew night missions into France and other Nazi controlled territories to drop supplies to resistance movements. He was in the air over Normandy on D-Day. He was in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1939-1945.

He was with the same crew the entire time. In the photo above, they were at grandpa’s 90th birthday celebration. That’s him on the left. In the middle is Sandy, the pilot. On the right is Jack, the tail gunner. These guys were barely out of childhood when they first met. They felt blessed to be amongst the ones that came home. They kept in touch for the rest of their lives.

In conversation with Sandy, my dad once inferred that he was a hero. “We weren’t heros, we were survivors” was Sandy’s response.

I often feel conflicted on Rememberance Day. I don’t like seeing war glorified, and I don’t like seeing the heroism of veterans conflated with unjust causes, and I think there have been many in the last century.

What I try to think about is real people, overcoming near impossible challenge, performing real sacrifice, getting in over their heads, suffering unforeseen consequences. I think of 18 year olds piloting heavy bombers over places where other 18 year olds had big guns to shoot them down. I think of what what their mothers and fathers might have thought. I wonder what they said when they talked about it. What would that be like? What if it had been me going over? Or one of my parents? Or Julie? Or my brother? Or my sons? My grandfather and his family were all real people, with real lives. There, but for the grace of God, go I. That’s the thing. People don’t choose to be born in times of war. War is forced upon them. It is not an opportunity for heroism as much as it is something to survive.

I try to think about all the other lives affected by war in our modern times. It’s easy to put up ancestors on pedestals for the wars they’ve fought in. But I also think about the Iranian guy I worked with for years, who emigrated to Canada after being conscripted serve in the war against Iraq. I think about the Hungarian guy that ran the sandwich stand that told me once his son would have been about my age today. I think about the conversations I’ve overheard at the rec centre near the navy base, guys talking about how the counselling helped, but they still need to drink if they really want to sleep. I think about my buddy in high school, who’s grandparents were forced from their home into an internment camp, right here in Canada. I think about when I was 10, hearing about President Reagan and the peacemaker nuclear missile on the news; convinced I’d see nuclear war in my lifetime.

I feel privileged to have met a few a few veterans of World War II in my life, and to have heard their stories. I am grateful for their efforts that won that war, but I am also overwhelmed with sorrow when I think of the loss that generation felt in their lives, and for the loss of so many other people from so many other wars. I think about those that survived and the ones that didn’t.

Today is a day for rememberance. It’s a day to be grateful for the sacrifice people have made in war, but more than that, it’s a day to remember why we must avoid it.

We remember why we protect the peace we so easily take for granted when we have it in our lives. I took it for granted, at 18, sweating how to get into university. My grandpa didn’t have that luxury at 18. He was in a ship, on his way to England while the blitz was on, with other teenagers that wouldn’t make it back.

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