For many, Remembrance Day is about the cenotaph, the parade, the laying of the wreaths and the long minute of silence. It is a tradition celebrated across the nation in small towns and large.
Last year I gave a nostalgic tip of the hat to the local legion halls which are at the heart of the tradition, and noted the problems many of them have to survive. Sure enough, the cenotaph ceremony I attended last year at our local Port Moody Legion was indeed the last before the building closed permanently to await re-development of the site. This year, I am told, the Legionnaires will soldier on and mount a ceremony of sorts nonetheless, and I salute them for doing so, although I doubt I will attend.
Increasingly, I find myself eschewing the pomp and circumstance of the cenotaph for the opportunity for quieter reflection, and if one cares to look, opportunities to quietly honour our war dead abound. Here are a couple of suggestions.
Take a break from storm watching in Pacific Rim Park, and head for Radar Hill. Just before the turnoff to the side road leading to the viewpoint, park and look for some inconspicuous tape markings in the salal, and follow them into the bush. The trail is muddy, in fact, it’s an hour-long slog through a bog, but at its end lies the wreckage of a Canso flying boat which crashed there on 10th February, 1945. There is nothing like a lung-bursting slog through a rain forest to make you appreciate the hardship and danger endured by our servicemen, particularly the eleven men and one woman who miraculously survived the Canso crash and subsequent fire, and had to slog through that bog to safety.
The eleven men crewing the Liberator bomber that went down on the slopes of Mt Welsh, near Chilliwack, weren’t so lucky. Their remains were entombed in a mass grave near the summit, since destroyed by landslides. The Chilliwack Legion is now fundraising for a permanent memorial site on the mountain, as a destination for those of us who like our Remembrance sites high and wild.
Or perhaps you could pull over the next time you travel eastbound Highway #1 near 192nd Street, to pay homage to Charlie’s Tree, an unofficial and homespun memorial originally created by a returning WWI vet to honour his buddies who didn’t.
And if 21-gun salutes leave you cold, perhaps a quiet visit to a veteran’s cemetery would be in order instead. I know that a lone piper plays poignantly on Remembrance Day at Royal Oak Burial Park, where my stepfather’s ashes lie with some of his veteran pals close by. No ceremony, no wreaths, just the haunting wail of bagpipes in the mist.
If you do visit, please leave a poppy on a veteran’s headstone. You won’t be alone. “No Stone Left Alone” is the name of a new foundation dedicated to the goal of having every veteran’s headstone recognized by a poppy each November. I would encourage you to support it.
I had the honour, many years ago, to serve as a tour guide at the Vimy Memorial. Every morning, walking to work from my lodgings in a nearby village I passed farmers’ fields where the outlines of trenches snaking across the fields could still be easily discerned, a half century later. My daily commute gave me many opportunities to reflect upon the enormity of the carnage that had been wrought there.
If you, too, would like an inkling of what life in the trenches was like, my final recommendation for an alternate Remembrance Day experience would be a visit to the McKnight Trench, a recreation of a section of a WWI trench system constructed by volunteers on the grounds of the Port Moody Museum. It is authentic – built from original manuals and photos, using historically correct materials. Even the mud is very real.
Celebrate Remembrance Day in your own style by all means, and please don’t feel that a visit to the cenotaph is the only kosher way to honour the day, but do, please stop and give pause, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day.
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