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Sunday, November 11, 2012

remembrance

i was born 7 years after my father came home from the war.

except that a part of him never really came home.

he enlisted in the air force at 21- the ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE or RCAF. he was a genius at math, even though he'd quit school after 9th grade to work on the farm, like most of the boys did back then. the air force brought him up to speed in a few months, and then assigned him to be a navigator, although he wanted to be a pilot.

he learned to fly by the stars...to give directions to the crew by the points of light in the night sky. it was blackout, you know, during the war...so the stars were bright. cloudy nights were non-flying nights.

my father never really came down out of the clouds. ever.

the war changed him, twisted him, scarred him. not physically- he was as beautiful when he came home as when he left. but inside, where it matters, he was wounded. he was broken.

his whole crew went down one night in the north sea. he was sick in bed with a high fever that night and could not go out on the mission. when they told him, he took all the blame on himself. all the black 'if only's' in the world descended upon his shoulders, and the ultimate survivor's guilt set the course for the rest of his life.

we, his children, became military cadets...sat in front of blackboards in the kitchen along with neighbor children rounded up to join the crew. hour after hour, we did star charts, mathematical calculus, navigator's drills. our instructor barked, coughed, shouted, sputtered.

my cousin andrew wrote a haunting song called 'three candles', in which he pays tribute to the warrior who did not fall into the sea, but rather into the confusion of a life lived as the sole survivor. my father would indeed climb up on the roof of every house we ever lived in and sing 'farther along...we'll know all about it...farther along we'll understand why...."

i imagine he still doesn't understand. at 89, the memories are all he has. he lives in those past moments. he's in uniform, he's sharp and ready and terrified and proud...flying the dark skies with his eyes on the heavens and star charts in his hands...the north star always just at the edge of his vision...europe at war beneath the lancaster bombers that roar into the cloudless night. he quotes 'high flight' and becomes one with the wind.