OUR FAMILY WILL HEAD DOWNTOWN TO THE CENOTAPH this evening, as we do every year on Remembrance Day, and lay two roses on its steps – one each for Jane’s father and my own. Occasionally I leave a poem to Dad as my own way of saying thanks for struggling for what he believed in, despite the emotional and physical wounds he received during World War Two.
During that conflict, along with being a soldier, he also wrote poems from the front for the Calgary Herald. One of these is titled The Moon and Mars. I bring it out every year and have to come to terms with the reality that Lloyd Pearson was not only a brave citizen but a confounded one as well. I’m starting to understand what he was getting at.
In The Moon and Mars, he speaks about his love for his country, his family, his local community, and romantic love. All these he likens to the seasons of the moon and its ability to enchant the human race with its sense of affection and possibility. But always on the heels of those sentiments came the presence of Mars – the ancient god of war, as epitomized by the Red Planet, who saw peace as merely the trite interplay that happens between conflicts. The hue of the moon over the battlefields nevertheless calmed my father’s soul, reminding him of why he was fighting. But the redness of Mars always drove him to despair because it was about how war seemed to regularly outdo the penchant for peace.
Years later, he would tell me how he came to believe that war was what happened when people stopped listening to the better angels of their nature. Once, as we sailed in the water off Penticton, British Columbia, he said that the most important thing about why he fought was that the love he felt for those people behind and with him was stronger than any animosity he might have felt for the enemy in front of him.
In other words, my Dad, like millions of others, fought for the kind of life he believed in. He had fought for the nationalization of parks in Western Canada, endeavoured to find ways to help the poor find work, was president of his neighbourhood association, a great believer in sports, and sought to expand the vote to Alberta’s aboriginal populations. These were the things he was fighting to preserve, along with the welfare of his family.
I wonder what he would think now. How would he respond to the fact that food banks are growing? Could he tolerate a kind of politics that refused to dedicate the resources required to locate the approximately 1,000 aboriginal woman who are presumed murdered or have disappeared in Canada? What would he say about all those recent veterans who for the life of them can’t access the benefits promised them after they returned home to struggle with PTSD, family poverty, even suicide? His world had been one in which the burgeoning middle-class could find employment, build their communities through good paying jobs, and bring up their children to follow a life that was bigger than themselves.
Lloyd Pearson died almost 40 years ago, but I sometimes fret that his dream died with him. There was a very real sense that, for him, the true battle of World War Two wasn’t about ridding the world of tyranny, but about building the kind of Canada that was fair, prosperous, sustainable, and equitable. Hitler and Mussolini are gone. The fascists were defeated. But sometime along the way, we began losing the battle at home. In place of abundance we have food banks; instead of communities we struggle with homelessness; in the place of enlightened lives we have education solely for the sake of employment; and instead of citizens with purpose we have components of capitalism with little sense of honour to those communities in which it thrives. Mars seems alive and well and I think that reality alone would break Dad’s heart.
Harry Leslie Smith is 90 years old, a veteran, and living out his final years in Britain. He has said that this will be his final year for wearing a poppy because we don’t truly honour those who perished in conflict if we continue to lay aside the true purposes for which democracy stands and for which they fought. He powerfully concludes in his piece in the Guardian:
Next year, I won’t wear the poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilized state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn’t be left to die on the battleground of modern life.
These are sad words from someone who has earned his opinion and they make mine feeble, yet I will still don my poppy. But they would light a fire in my Dad’s heart if he were alive today. He would say, “Take the torch, citizens; our real fight is about the fairness of home and not merely the foes overseas.” As Robert Frost would say, “Let us run to meet the moon.” Mars has had its way long enough.