Remembrance Day seems to have inspired people more than usual this year. Perhaps the ability to post pictures of our loved ones who died at war on (semi-)public forums like Facebook has generated new interest. Or maybe the response generated from one of these posts renews interest in our own connections to war history, whether immediate or 70 years ago. The recent US election might have rekindled interest in overseas conflict for voters, though from my perspective in Canada, that didn’t seem to be a high-priority issue this time around.
Whatever the reason, I found some reassurance in the posts I saw today, particularly those that were actually connected to my own or my friends’ families. There’s always worry that as large-scale conflicts recede into the past and the survivors of those wars leave us, we’ll begin to lose our personal connections and start to, well, forget. Not to mention the dwindling (disappearance?) of national or moral obligation that characterized participation in WWI and II – most likely a result of what many of us now view as unnecessary annihilation of feared peoples, cultures, and religions– in the wars following 1945.
My cousin posted pictures of the shot-down plane flown by my great uncle Samuel Clarke in 1943, collected on a website that is dedicated to gathering information about plane crashes over WWII Germany. My grandfather, James, was also an RCAF pilot, and flying instructor, in WWII. He survived, but his family was one beleaguered by tragedy, with Samuel dying in the crash, a young sister dying in infancy; and it all started with their harsh homesteading existence on the wintery Canadian prairies that was an “escape” from poverty in Ireland.
I don’t remember my grandfather too well. He died when I was 14, and had been sick for a long period of time before that. The things I do remember, though, are very specific. He especially enjoyed stirring sugar into his coffee, tapping the spoon until it was appropriately cool, then touching it to the back of my hand whenever I was sitting next to him at the kitchen table. I would shriek in shock at its warmth while he chuckled to himself. When I joined a softball team for a year, he bought me a glove that actually fit my eight-year-old hand, with a cool thumb strap inside, and practiced catching with me. He was thrilled that someone in the family might continue his interest in playing ball (unfortunately, much like gymnastics, skating, and Girl Guides, softball wasn’t an activity that I stuck with). I remember him presiding over Christmas night from his armchair, handing out gifts and mixing too-strong drinks for his kids, laughing when they wrinkled their faces after a sip.
Most of all, I remember standing next to him as he played his pedal steel guitar. I have a vivid picture in my head of this moment, though I don’t know when it would have happened. It must have buried itself in the file of “extraordinarily important memories” because it remains the sound that will make me shift from thinking a song is alright to putting it on repeat.
My grandfather was obsessed with Hawaiian and country music, two styles that, in his younger days, were not all that distinct from each other. He travelled to Hawaii to learn and listen; he played Jerry Byrd records endlessly; he tortured my mother and her siblings with Hank Snow, Hank Williams, and Wilf Carter. The last time my mother was visiting, we put on a collection of ukulele recordings from the 1920s, and she said, “I feel like I’m a kid again, with Dad playing his records.”
I came to like the old country he loved in a circuitous way. Contrary to popular (Canadian) belief, not everyone who lives in the western city of Calgary likes country music. But when I was in high school, country music was once again merging with pop and there were superstars benefitting. By way of Garth Brooks and Reba MacEntire (I was susceptible to that teenage evil, peer pressure, and was trying to fit in), I started listening to Nashville records. Those got supplemented by Canadian roots artists in my early 20s, which eventually led me backwards to old folk singers and early country. By the time I was 25, I was as into Hank as my grandpa was.
I wish I could have known him when I was researching country music in school. What he could have taught me, shared with me, is something I don’t like to ruminate on too much; what a lost opportunity. Never mind how that might have changed our relationship – in a family of 17 grandchildren, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. We might have developed a special bond that went beyond our year of practicing catch.
And so, I dedicate one of my favourite songs to my grandpa, who didn’t just serve in the war, but who changed my life, even if he didn’t know it at the time.