I have a series of childhood memories that center around a family friend named Jimmy Christensen. He was a tiny man – even as a child I remember thinking him small. He probably just made it to five feet in his army boots. His frame was as sparse as the hair on his bald head. We knew him at the end of his life. He still had an inviting and welcoming smile that, combined with his size, made it easy for children to love him. He was an occasional Sunday afternoon visitor and, when his health failed, a regular stop to visit him in the Colonel Belcher hospital. It was a hospital reserved for veterans of Canada’s wars. Children were not allowed up in the wards, so my sister and I would sit in the lobby and wait as our parents went up. We hoped he would be well enough to come down and see us. I wish I could say it was because we were concerned for his health but, in truth, it was because he usually had candy to give us. We would hear the elevator doors open and then listen for the slight shuffle of his slippered feet.
When Jimmy died, he left all his worldly possessions – one steamer trunk – to my mom and dad. He gave me a “ship in a bottle” which I still have. It was made by the German prisoners over whom he was guard at a prisoner of war camp in Southern Alberta during the Second World War. He was nearing the end of his career in the military, having served as an infantryman for much of the First World War. He saw action in Europe and survived the mustard gas which was used in that conflict. It left him with a permanent rasp in his voice. He had watched hundreds of his comrades die – the fortunate ones quickly as a result of gunshot or grenades, the unfortunate slowly succumbing to the gas or gangrene. The even less fortunate living out their lives in a state of permanent shock, blankly staring into the fearful abyss of their memories.
The campaign book which was part of the contents of the trunk he left behind detailed the history of his battalion – the battles in which he fought, the endless marches forward and then back, their place in the strategy of victory that won the allies that war. He would not talk about it much. His eyes would tear up as he remembered horrors long ago and far away. Apparently, they weren’t so long ago or far away.
What possible tribute can be paid to the hundreds of thousands who, like Jimmy, gave their lives in one way or another for the causes of freedom all over the world? I think he – they – would be happy if we would just remember.