It was a small, weather-beaten Canadian flag painted on a board, together with a small, wooden cross, both nailed to what looked like the tall stump of a large tree. Over the years, I began noticing that every November a small poppy wreath appeared at the base of the tree, and wondered what the significance was.
In more recent years, however, it became obvious that the neglected tree was getting attention from someone. First a newer, larger Canadian flag appeared, then another. Then a much larger wreath. And recently three flagpoles, one flying the ensign of the RCAF, and then a sign proclaiming “CHARLIE’S TREE”!
So finally, after driving past every weekday for the last 18 years, this November I stopped, and this is what I learned:
The tree is an ancient Douglas fir, the largest of what once was a grove of old-growth forest at that location, and a favourite haunt of five young men who went off to fight in the First Great War. Some say it shaded their favourite swimming pond.
Only one of those young men returned, Flight Instructor Charlie Perkins, who, as a personal act of remembrance, planted ivy at the base of the tree in dedication to the memory of his fallen friends.
The ensuing years haven’t been kind to that ancient tree. It’s been vanadalized and set afire at least twice; it had to be topped from its original majestic 210 foot height; and it was almost a casualty of the construction of Highway #1, until an edict from the famous Flying Phil Gaglardi, in the face of local protest, ordered that the highway be moved to save the tree.
Local legend has it that a very old Charlie Perkins himself, armed with a shotgun, planted himself in front of the bulldozers to make the point.
In 2005, a campaign was launched to have Charlie’s Tree declared a National Historic Site, and it is now tenderly cared for by the Whalley branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. Bless them for their efforts.
A few miles to the east of Charlie’s Tree, a section of the Trans Canada Highway has been re-named the Highway of Heroes, a fact proclaimed by a large official highway sign on the median. It is hard not to applaud that gesture as an appropriate mark of respect to our veterans, especially in this month of remembrance, but for me, nothing quite matches the ramshackle homespun shrine that is Charlie’s Tree. Please tip your hat the next time you drive by.
I once knew another flight instructor from the First Great War. Lt B.V. “Crash” Richardson, Q.C. (who was a much better lawyer than pilot). He was my grandfather, and one of the reasons I became a lawyer. This year’s Remembrance Day email is dedicated to his memory.