There was an article in the Globe and Mail this morning pointing out that there are, in Canada, only three surviving WW1 veterans. For some reason, I find that thought incredibly moving. Three. I'm not, to be honest, sure what the population of Canada is now - not very large, maybe 30 million. But even so, those three men are such tiny isolated dots - one for every 10 million or so Canadians - in the huge pixelated mass of the population. Yet, today, they come into focus; I think of their frail forms standing, or more likely sitting, near a cetonaph, or in a Legion Hall, or perhaps in a chair in a long-term care facility as, somewhere in Canada, a Remembrance day ceremony replays its achingly familiar ritual. And not only those men, but all the WW2 veterans, who are now also old men and women (my mother was 82 when she died this year, and was a teeanger when war broke out) standing with their pale old faces solemn and still. Their eyes are always looking at something in the distance. Often they are weeping silently. The last time I went to a ceremony myself I found tears sliding quietly down my cheeks when "The Last Post" played, as it always does, echoing over the radio or the television, over and over again in Canada and in the UK, and in Australia. Maybe in the US, too, though it is less certain there.
My grandfather fought in WW1. My mother told me that her childhood was shadowed by memories of the "great war." She said that Armistice Day was terribly, terribly sad and solemn, because so many men in her village had either fought or been killed or known someone who was killed. My grandfather suffered from shell-shock; my mother remembered having to be careful not to make too much noise in the house.
One winter many years ago, a high wind set off the air raid sirens in the Saanich peninsula. Both my parents quite literally turned white, and for a few seconds had that wild, lost look in their eyes as if they wanted to run somewhere, very fast. World War 2 was very much real for me because both my parents lived through it and talked about it often. My father lived just outside of London during the Blitz. He was just too young to sign up at the beginning of the war but was one of those faintly laughable figures - the home guard. One of those boys who walked around in a tin hat carrying a bucket of sand. Not so funny if your house was hit by an incendiary bomb.
And that makes me think of Dresden. Or Tokyo (see the studio Ghibli film "Grave of the Fireflies" if you need to know something of what incendiary bombs were like). And then I have to stop thinking because it's too painful, and I get an ache in my throat.
The Globe article asked what we will do when the last of those three old men dies. We should have some kind of ceremony. Like today.