Monday, November 13, 2006

November Eleventh

This is an interruption to the Calfornia report, but I want to post it while it is still almost topical. I meant to post it on the eleventh but I hadn't yet had a chance to type it up.

In Canada November 11th is a statutory holiday called Remembrance Day. At 11:00 am on the eleventh day, school classes, radio and television stations, and many places of work simply stop activity to observe two minutes of silence. Every town has a cenotaph, a memorial to soldiers from that community. Their names are usually listed on the monument. It's common for the cenotaph to date back to just after World War I, with the 1914-1918 dead listed on one face of the monument and then as you walk around the monument another face will list the 1939-1945 dead. On Remembrance Day there is usually a public ceremony at the cenotaph, where the mayor and other diginitaries lay wreaths, and surviving veterans attend in uniform to be honoured as well. There might be a fly-by of vintage aircraft in missing-man formation, and maybe some speeches.

It's actually more like Remembrance Fortnight, because around the end of October, people start wearing poppies, as a symbol of remembrance. I've never seen anyone wear a real poppy, but as long as I can remember, volunteers have distributed little plastic and felt pin-on poppies in return for donations to veterans' organizations. I've seen a lapel poppy from England, and it was a different style from ours, but still recognizable.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a man standing on a Canadian street corner, carrying a donation box that was absolutely stuffed with green banknotes. The green ones are twenties in Canada--more than the usual donation for a street-corner poppy, but he was more than the usual person giving them out. He was at least seventy, but fit and trim, standing up straight wearing a green military jumpsuit with faded embroidered patches. He was so dynamic that everyone had to stop and talk to him, and donate for a poppy. I intended to tell you which regiment he had served with, but it turns out that the Duke of Edinburgh shoulder patch isn't enough to identify it, as the Duke is patron to multiple regiments across the country. Someone asked him what year the uniform was, and he said 1953.

I gave him a donation, and he pinned a poppy on my coat. I said thank you, for the poppy, and then I thanked him also for his service to my country. Then I turned away to continue on my errands, and because my voice was cracking. It means a lot to me that people volunteer to fight the battles that we determine are worth fighting. I'm sure they volunteered for all kinds of reasons: to defend the innocent, to prove their worth, to live up to community expectations, for the money, for the travel, to get away from home, or just because all their friends were going. They were probably sometimes scared or bored or lonely and lots of them died. There are still Canadians dying and being wounded in Afghanistan, and I try to remember them all, as I wait for the light to change.

A young Japanese woman, probably an exchange student, indicates my poppy and asks me what it is for. She has noticed that almost everyone is wearing one. I'm taken aback for a moment, because I was under the impression that the 11th day of the 11th month was remembered as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day or the like around the world. I explain that it is to remind us to remember the soldiers in all the wars, that it is not a victory celebration, but to honour those who fought. "You could wear one too," I tell her. She says thank you, maybe for the explanation, maybe for the acknowledgement that soldiers from her country also died in wars. The light changes and we walk away.

A week later, I was in California, watching the news with a couple of members of the Canadian nerd herd I'd come south with. There had just been an election and the outcome could change the balance of power in the Senate and House, legislative bodies which presumably ratify decisions affecting American soldiers, and therefore soldiers of America's allies and enemies. Watching the footage, I noticed an odd thing.

"None of the newscasters or politicians is wearing a poppy," I said. In Canada, anyone putting forward a public face would be wearing one. It crosses political lines, because we're not honouring the decision to send soldiers to fight, nor the causes they fight for, we're honouring the individuals. I've never heard of anyone shunning poppies because they disagreed with a war or a peacekeeping mission.

"Maybe," it was suggested, "November 11th isn't such a big deal here."

"Or maybe they just don't have poppies. After all, a Canadian wrote the poem."

I've since checked to see if the poppy was a mostly-Canadian thing, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The first Google hit on "In Flanders Fields" is from the Arlington National Cemetary site, and the next one is from Belgium. As this Australian site says, "The poppy soon became widely accepted throughout the allied nations as the flower of remembrance to be worn on Armistice Day." It certainly means that in Canada. We have a circulating coin with a red-coloured poppy on it. User Friendly is a cartoon that is usually silly, often geek-topical, but that took the day off making jokes for the commemoration.

As it turns out, I was with Canadians on the eleventh, but we didn't time our day properly, so we were driving at 11 a.m. (we actually got it mixed up and were thinking 11:11) and just after we parked we noticed with regret that we had missed the appointed hour. "Ah well," said one of my companions, "In gratitude for their sacrifice, let us now go and have a good time enjoying our freedom." And so we did.