I’m not alone in noting that Canadian war veterans were never enthusiastic about recounting their experiences. That goes for veterans of both world wars, and there were even a good number of Great War survivors still around while I was growing up. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not even recognized as existing back then and former fighting men were just expected to come home and get back on the job, making the Canadian economy great.
The former soldier that I have the strongest memories of was mon Oncle Jacques. He was actually my father’s uncle and so of course was my great uncle. His family moved from a small village in the Gaspe Peninsula to the growing city of Montreal before the start of the Roaring Twenties. He was one of eleven surviving children and decided for himself in Grade 4 that he would attend school in English because he thought it would be a good thing if every Canadian were bilingual. All his life , however, he spoke the language of Shakespeare with a heavy French-Canadian accent. My siblings and I thought it was hilarious the way he always put the emphasis on the wrong syllable when speaking English. This was in the days before sensitivity training and laughing at somebody’s accent was considered just good fun.
Besides a couple of young siblings’ deaths in the Gaspe, his sister, my father’s mother, died in Montreal when she was thirty two years old, after working for twenty years in a textile factory. Uncle Jacques helped raise my father who was now an orphan. My grandfather was already dead, having died before my father’s first birthday.
Jacques own domestic life was far from marital bliss. His first child died at birth, and his young wife died herself in childbirth with another stillborn baby a year later. Jacques joined the Canadian merchant marine where his boat was sunk by the Germans. He survived, made it home and joined the army.
The only memories we kids were able to pry out of him was how as a radio man landing on Juno Beach he dropped his gear because it was slowing him down and ran for cover, finding shelter behind a couple of already-dead bodies.
Returning to Canada he made his living as a stationary engineer, looking after the heating and cooling systems in factories in Montreal. He lived in Verdun, always alone in an apartment with a balcony and a spiral staircase and we visited him often, and he came out frequently to our West Island home as well. He loved watching baseball and hockey and he loved making up elaborate betting pools for us kids. Before the war he had run an illegal gambling site on a boat in the Montreal harbour. I never saw him without a cigarette in his mouth and he would often send me on errands to the fridge in order to get him a beer. We kids loved it when he bought us soft ice cream cones and he never forgot our dog, plunking it down wherever we were and laughing as it was lapped up in about four-and-a-half seconds.
His last few years were spent in the Veterans Hospital at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, right beside John Abbott Cegep which I attended for two years after high school. I remember hospital staff bringing the veterans over to the college to skate at noon, right after we students had finished playing shinny on the Macdonald College ice. It was supposed to be exercise for them, but they never seemed to be too interested, preferring to smoke and drink rye whiskey out of the mickeys that they always held onto with shaking hands.
Uncle Jacques died there when he was eighty one years old, I believe. It was a small funeral as there were not many of his peers left and we were never a sentimental family. He left a trust fund, for ‘Les pauvres et les malades’ that we still administer today.
His legacy is what I remember best every November 11th.