Both my father and grandfather were farmers and soldiers.
They were born into farming when it was much more likely for Canadians to be born on the farm. It may be tough for many people in Canada to recall a time when people farmed because they spent their lives on the land where they were born. Much of what we see of farming these days are corporate farms or hobbyists who farm after their higher paying jobs allowed them to take it up. The concept of families who pass the land and the farm down from one generation to another is increasingly rare.
I don’t know how far back soldiering goes in my family but it was a connection my father and grandfather might not have had but for the two world wars. Both men volunteered to fight. Both men went straight from the farm and joined up. Neither had been to a large city before signing up, nor had they been on a ship or left Ontario, let alone left Canada or been to Europe.
Both started at the bottom as privates and became corporals. Corporal is only one step above private, but at some point some set of circumstances occurred that moved both my father and grandfather up to that rank, which means they had some responsibility for their men.
I never had the opportunity to talk to my grandfather about his experiences, but when I was able to ask my father he didn’t talk much about it. He most commonly would say “there was a job to do and someone had to do it” or “the Germans were just like us and they had a job to do, too.”
In the final years of my father’s life I found out a few more details about his service, most of that knowledge coming as we cleaned out his apartment in preparation for him to move into a retirement home for veterans. I was astonished when he was going through his war records and he produced his army paybook. He proudly read out to me “Parachutist with pay” which appeared in the small book. There were indeed columns with initials confirming that he received pay. I asked if that meant that some guys weren’t paid. If I was dumbfounded at the notion of soldiers not getting paid, I think he was even more surprised that I didn’t know that there were paratroops who were convicts and therefore not entitled to pay or guys who received no money for other reasons.
After his war, my grandfather went back to the farm. My father made the choice to move to a bigger city and became a truck driver, but he went back to the farm often. He helped his father bring in the hay every year and made weekend trips back home. We often went there in the summer and frequent weekend trips in the spring and fall. Among all the amazing things about the farm for me was the lack of electricity and indoor plumbing and this was the case even in the late 70’s when the farm was sold following my grandfather’s death.
Although I hated the drive which seemed to last forever and I was car sick a lot, it was pretty cool to know that here was a place in the world that never changed. It was one of the few constants in my life. Over the years though, it went from being the whole family who would go to just my Dad and me.
A funny feature of these trips involved the Legion. I recall two locations for the Legion. The first was a brick building, which at some point in my childhood was vacated for something resembling a Quonset hut at a different spot in town. Every Saturday afternoon, Dad and I would drive us from the farm to the Legion and he would play euchre. Kids were not allowed in, so I would sit in the car and read. If I got hungry or thirsty, I would honk the horn and Dad would bring out a sandwich and coke.
This ritual went on for years. Dad got to play cards with people he grew up with and I got to read. It was a pretty sweet arrangement, except for one thing: I always wanted to see what it looked like inside. The Legion took on an air of mystery to me. One time I tried to get in by going to the door and saying that my Dad hadn’t heard me honking. I had a small peek and heard his displeasure about me trying to get into this sacred place. I could not know then that the Legion held another mystery for me if I ever gained access to the building.
When my father passed away, the Legion had a wonderful memorial service for him. I was finally inside the Legion and it was a little overwhelming. Not having belonged to the armed forces or the Mounties, I never expected to be allowed to enter the building, although the rules about membership have changed to allow kids of veterans and other relatives to join.
Before the memorial, the leader of the branch explained that Dad was a charter member, but the words didn’t have any impact on me until we walked in through the front door. There on the wall at the entrance was a board listing the men who signed the charter for the branch and how much they had each raised. Remembering my Dad at the time that the branch was founded was a truck driver and it was just a couple years after the war, the biggest mystery about the Legion was now staring me in the face. The cost of starting the branch was $10,000 and my father raised three quarters of that. If going to war was just something that needed to be done and someone had to do it, then getting a Legion branch back home was another job that needed doing.
“Back home,” along with the Legion, is a more of a mystical concept for me than a location, although they both represent a place in my youth. Whenever I hear the term “back home” it means my father’s and grandfather’s little village, not the medium-size city I grew up in. This little speck on the map that is no longer even a town, but part of a larger one, is pretty fixed in mind at certain size. The last time population sign I remember seeing showed 600 people living in that town. Checking online, I see that it is now over 900. Before the First World War there had to be far fewer people living there.
Yet every Remembrance Day there is a long list read of men who served and died between 1914 and 1918 from that small town. In fact, one of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients in World War One, Wallace Lloyd Algie, came from this tiny place.
At my father’s memorial service, the sitting Member of Parliament and member of the government, David Tilson spoke, as did a representative for John Tory who was the MPP at the time and the Mayor of Caledon, Marolyn Morrison. Since that memorial, I have tried to attend every Remembrance Day ceremony, which is held the Sunday before November 11th. Every year, members representing the levels of government all show up. This past Sunday, at the Legion named in honour of Lt. Algie and supported by my father, the public representatives, Mr. Tilson, Sylvia Jones the MPP who succeeded Mr. Tory and Mrs. Morrison, were in attendance again to lay wreathes. In addition, officials from regional council, fire department, OPP, Scouts and others laid their wreathes at the cenotaph.
After the service, I spoke to a couple of the politicians and the conversation turned as if often does to numbers. The list of those who died during the First World War as mentioned is long. This year about 120-150 people watched the Remembrance Day ceremony and the political leaders acknowledge how much support the Legion has every year to commemorate those who have served as well as those who have fallen.
The men who left the farm almost 100 years ago or again after 1939 or to fight in Korea didn’t have to go. Why they did may be a mystery to many of us when so few of us these days would even consider that choice. For me, there is no mystery about why so many people connected to this little town show up on Remembrance Day. The past will always be alive when I go back home.