We Stand in Silence

FTLComm - Tisdale - Sunday, November 11, 2001

Standing in Tisdale's cemetery in the section set aside for veterans at sunset Saturday, November 10 was a moving experience. The impressive marker that declares the service of those buried here in conflicts long ago and far away.

There is at least one grave of one who served in the Boer War in South Africa, one marker for a man who served in the Northern Ireland constabulary, one who died the year after world war two after having spent all of the war as a prisoner of Japan.
The most important thing that comes to mind is that this space in this cemetery will not only continue to hold the remains of service men and women who have died, but it will also receive others who are still living and did their duty for their country and will sooner or later, join their comrades.

This concept is brought home over and over again as one sees the large number of those who died during World War II. These were survivors of the Great War and unlike their fallen brothers in arms who perished and were buried in massive cemeteries in France and Belgium, they came home only to live a short while longer and died during yet another world conflict.

As I stood and looked at this large collection of markers (only a few are shown here on this page) it made me remember. Yes remember those days as a very young teenager and what it was like to stand in silence on Remembrance day in Kennedy's Legion Hall.

Kennedy and Langbank are two small communities four miles apart in the South East of Saskatchewan. The local Legion is in Kennedy and it was there that each year the citizens of both communities and the surrounding rural population gathered to mark November 11.

The time that sticks in my memory would be 1957, the year before we got our first television, the year after the Suez Crisis when Canada and Canadian forces were preparing to go to the Middle East to do what could be done to stop the Israeli and Arab neighbours from blowing each other up yet another time.

A large number of the member of the Kennedy Legion were from Langbank. Bill West, Stanley Brown, Jack Hurst, Owen Cairns, Ted Burnett, Wilfred McKillop, these were the folks of our little community and they were all vigourous men, for World War II was not some ancient event, it was something that ended only thirteen years earlier. It was fresh in their memories and everyone who would join them on November 11. Bill West has worked through the war as a mechanic as had Jack Hurst, Stan Brown was a mechanic in a tank battalion and would tell us of working through Italy then Normandy, Owen Cairns was young and had never left Canada and Ted Burnett, the post master, had served in World War I so when the second war came he joined up and was sadly disappointed, he was not allowed to go off to Europe once more. Instead, Ted spent the war guarding German prisoners near Hinton Alberta.

There was about a foot of snow on that fall day and bitterly cold. We got to the Legion hall in lots of time, long enough to freeze outside waiting to get in and change. There were a lot of people milling around in the cold as everyone knew that there would be standing room only in the large hall but almost everyone would be there. Finally, we (the choir) were let in to the legion rooms on the North side of the building.

It was only marginally warmer inside, it seems the Legion was having problems with the oil heater and there were some folks trying to get it running. There was the smell of sandwiches and just a hint of booze in the room as we pulled on our choir gowns. The Kennedy United Church senior choir might have been there, I just don't recall but we were the Langbank junior choir and the younger ones in our little group put on the white gowns and a few of us had graduated to dark robes.

In 1957 a Remembrance Day service was essentially a full fledged funeral, it was sombre and many people would be weeping. It would be up to us, the members of the choir who had the responsibility of leading the service and singing the hymns, for at a funeral few will sing, even though everyone knows the words to the same hymns used time after time.

This was an especially tense event. For the years before and I had been there many times before in the choir we had endured a scratchy record played way to loud of the Last Post and Revelry Last year it had stuck on the first long note and proceeded to falter all the way through. So this year Billy had his horn and it would all rest on him to play the day.

Now Billy was a member of the Kennedy community band and had made great progress on his "cornet" it wasn't a trumpet he explained to us and showed us how it was smaller and when he blew it it left a nasty bruise in the middle of his lips. That morning Billy's blue lips were swollen from practicing and his normally pale complexion was many shades whiter than the snow outside. The guy was a wreck, perspiring, fiddling with the horn and with the look in his eyes of a man about to face a firing squad.

We were all lined up and each of us did our best to pull Billy together. His sister Phyllis was doing Flanders fields, Melvin was fidgeting around, Wilma looked completely lost and Jimmy just didn't seem to understand what was going on.

At last we were in our place and the hall was jam packed, people standing along the walls, at the back, it seemed like not a single person wasn't on top of somebody else.

To make it even more oppressive it was almost totally dark. The poor lighting in the place wasn't turned on and just a light or two shone on the place for the wreaths at the front.
The veterans came in with flags and a little shouting, marching people are always shouting and I was worried one more "ten-hut" would send the already shaking Billy into a coma.

The veterans came in in two groups, first the old and thin fellows from World War I and among them only Ted Burnett looked like he would make it to the end of the week. Then came the World War II guys all looking like neighbours that's because they were. At the end of the group there were a few fellows from Korea and later.

The Kennedy United Church Minister began the service and we were on. "Unto the hills, along will I lift up, my longing eyes." I hated that hymn, everyone droned it, paying no attention to the words and at every funeral it was the cue for people to start sobbing. As a choir member I had seen more than my share of funerals and this was just one of those times you had to get through it. Billy blared away, pale and his voice cracking, Melvin was on key but way to loud, I think his mother was playing the piano.

A scripture reading, words by the priest and time for Phyllis to do her Flanders fields. Phyllis was short but determined she did it without more than one hesitation and everyone in the choir was with here "row on row."

"Nearer My God To Thee" we sang, with the strength of drowning victims on the deck of the Titanic. I never went near that song without thinking of that band playing that hymn as they were in the legend, riding the sinking ship down.

By the end of the hymn, in the darkness and press of people I was wondering about that oil heater, I could smell the spilled diesel fuel, but mostly I could smell two hundred people in winter coats standing elbow to elbow.

Billy was now past the shaking stage and would tremble on one foot then the other. The wreaths had been laid, the speeches made and we were ready to do our last song. I can't remember if we did an anthem or not, but the last hymn was a favourite of mine, "Abide With Me." It was the piece that almost no one sang and I could get away with phrasing it so that the lines and their meaning would come out. "Fast Falls the eventide, the shadows deepen, Lord, (big pause) with me abide."

It was over and the reverend had motioned to Billy, we all gave him our encouragement, I touched his shoulder, Melvin muttered something and I really felt like I need to go to the bathroom.

Remember, it was dark in there, well as Billy took his place and raised the cornet to his swollen lips some brilliant Legionnaire killed the only light in the place and now only a slim shaft of diffuse light from the kitchen door into the legion rooms entered into the pitch darkened room and Billy began...

The first "tah" went pretty well, stretching out then the ugly silence of the pause, then a little faultier as the next "tah" burst forth. I could feel the shaking from Phyllis beside me, it was like we were each working that damn horn with him. The Last Post was over and he was silent.

We all stood there, in the pitch blackness of the crowded hall a muffled cough, but silence for one hundred twenty seconds that in my mind were much closer to the month of January, the world's longest month. Then Billy had the mouth piece to his lips and the revelry was beginning, he was going home and the notes just dashed from that horn, The guy was our genius, our hero and our honour and that of his dad and every veteran who wanted a live bugler at the ceremony were filled with relief.

The light came on, then others and the veterans filed out into the kitchen, we had a tough time making it in there to our coats, it was so crowded but our hearts were light. Billy had won the day, we had got everyone through those dirges and civilisation was preserved once more, well for another year.

The smell of coffee now was mixed with the sandwiches and there were Legion members with glasses and golden colour liquids spilling as there was laughter.

A life time of November 11ths, no one would have thought that time after time remembrance day, the time to remember and for us in the Junior choir we would remember Stan's stories and Humphrey Bogart but it was not really remembering it was establishing a ceremony for our people those who did remember and it was a time to work out in our minds what was really important. As at a funeral there is little that can be done for the deceased, the ceremony is for those who are alive, living with the pain of loss, the anguish of having survived when others did not and extending to those living people our shared feelings for them.

The glory of war, killing and being killed was and is a shabby concept that has no place in true understanding of what is going on. Indeed it is the recognition that those people who came into the room filled with their neighbours had accepted responsibility but they were the survivors a list, a very long list was on the cenotaph and on aging paper on the Legion wall. Just like the grave markers on this page names of people who vanished, ceased to exist and their action must not ever be forgotten.

Those people who died in the service of their country were killed or died after the conflict but one way or another for reasons that would fill pages of text if put in a list, they and their lives must have significance. For every person who stands in the silence thoughts come to their minds, thoughts that are personal, thoughts that are shared, thoughts that need never be voiced for we have to make our own way through the process of accepting the sacrifice of others for us and our society.

So many speeches talk like this of the huge sacrifice of the war dead but the real experience is to us who are alive and have to make sense of this waste of life. There is no question that as a kid singing in a choir we had a duty to perform, we knew why were there is was for Billy's dad, Marilyn's dad, it was for those good men who we shared our lives with and clearly we owed it to them to recognise not just their action but to show them our support. We did it by singing and by Billy doing his very best to get the notes right help everyone there experience a proper remembrance day service. To stand in silence.
Timothy W. Shire