Archive for November, 2009

Hi everyone:

I’m back again. It’s been about 2 weeks since my last entry – the one about Remembrance Day. It’s been a bit busy for me since then, and I must confess that I didn’t feel inspired to offer anything for my readers. After all, I never said that I would write on a regular basis or on a regular cycle, but that I would do so when the mood hit, or when I felt that I had something worthwhile to say. But today I do have something to share with all of you. Here goes!

For this particular blog entry I want to thank Shirley Edwards. Shirley is the founder of “Open Mind”, a Toronto based network of coaching, workshops, retreats and similar products – all designed to make the most of your life.  Or as it notes on her Web site, “Open Mind is a customized approach to determining and prioritizing what you want in life”.  You can learn more about Shirley by visiting: http://www.openmindcs.com/

Shirley was the keynote speaker at our November 26 HAPPEN Toronto meeting, and during her presentation yesterday, she offered a concept that really interested me and that I wanted to share with all of you. Since I can’t think of a better way to phrase this, I will call it the “billboard concept”. It goes something like this:

You are given access to a huge billboard alongside a major highway in your area, such as the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, or the Queen Elizabeth Way or Highway 403 here in Hamilton. Thousands, if not millions, of people will see your billboard every day as they drive by – even if it’s just a passing glance. You can put anything on that billboard. It can be a favourite quote. Perhaps something to promote your business. Tell others about yourself. If you’re into personal branding , you could use the billboard to “sell” yourself to others who might want to hire you.  It’s also one of those high-tech electronic billboards, so you could even do a video presentation. Your only limit is your imagination because this is free of charge.

So it’s really very simple. What message do you want to put on that billboard? What would you like to say? What do you want to tell others about yourself?

In order for this blog entry to have maximum impact, I will end it here, making this the shortest entry I have ever written. And given that I love to write, and people tell me I am good at it, you may never see an entry this short again.

Thanks for reading this, and if you want to contact me about this blog entry – perhaps even tell me what you would put on your billboard, feel free to do so. There are various contact points around my WordPress page. Leave a comment for me, or perhaps send me an e-mail: greg.brown@sympatico.ca Or if you like, next time we see each other, tell me in person.

Until next time, have fun with your billboard!

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Hi everyone:

The tumult and the shouting dies, the Captains and the Kings depart.
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice, an humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget!

(from Rudyard Kipling’s poem – “Recessional”)

I first wrote this entry on the evening of November 11, 2009, and have tweaked it a few times since then – including the most recent revision just before Remembrance Day 2015 as Veterans Week begins. Whether you read these words during November, or at any other time of year, I hope what you see helps you keep and honour Remembrance Day in your own way. Now on to the blog entry.

Once again, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month has come for its annual visit. It is hard to know what to make of this solemn and sombre day, but let me try to express some words to mark the occasion.

This day evokes so many feelings, so many emotions. Where does one start?  If you follow my blog, then you may remember my entry from September 2009 that I wrote in observance of the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War 2. And the story told by the padre in charge as part of a Remembrance Day ceremony here in Hamilton about the man who wanted to meet a fellow soldier who had quite probably saved his life by warning his battalion about a group of German soldiers waiting for them across a river, urging the battalion not to attack. And how that man just happened to be sitting next to him at the veterans hospital. Very powerful indeed. By the way, if you haven’t read that blog entry, or want to do so again: September 2009 – a solemn anniversary

But for this special Remembrance Day blog entry, let me share a few things that come to mind as I dwell on what this day means to me, and how my images of November 11 have evolved as I have grown older.

First, I must confess that my understanding and appreciation of Remembrance Day has changed through the years. As I am sure it has for many people – perhaps for those of you now reading these words. During my childhood and teenaged years back home in St. Lambert, Quebec (a suburb of Montreal located on the city’s South Shore – and home of the first lock in the St. Lawrence Seaway system), I remember many Novembers participating in our city’s annual Remembrance Day ceremonies at the local Cenotaph – usually on the Sunday afternoon before the actual Day. Dressed first in my Wolf Cub uniform, then later as a Boy Scout, and then finally as a Scout Leader, I joined hundreds of others who marched through the streets. Including many veterans of World War 2 from St. Lambert who always impressed me with their crisp clean uniforms and their medals shining in the cold November sunlight.

This was, of course, during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when what most people simply called “the War” was still fresh in many people’s minds. After all, it had ended in 1945, less than 30 years ago. Even the veterans themselves were middle-aged and in the prime of life – or so it seemed to a wide-eyed youngster such as yours truly.  It was a stirring sight indeed to watch those proud men march, row by row, always in step. Even now, when I watch them march past me from the sidewalks of downtown Hamilton and other places, accompanied by the skirl of the bagpipes or the stirring music of the military bands, it still is.

And for several of those St. Lambert ceremonies, one of my uncles served as the Parade Marshall. Grant had served with the Air Force in World War 2, but was shot down over North Africa and spent much of the War as a POW. To be more specific, he eventually wound up at Stalag Luft 3. That’s right. Where the Great Escape took place.  I talked to him about it a few times, he was not in the camp on that fateful day – he was one of the prisoners sent to a nearby camp shortly before the Escape. He also told me that the famous movie was almost 100% accurate, that it was a faithful account of what really took place.

Looking back across the years,  I can still hear Grant’s voice booming out over the Cenotaph and the surrounding Square, located in front of our main post office, across the street from my elementary school – calling the Parade to attention, at ease, or issuing other orders.  After the formal ceremonies ended and we did the requisite March-Past, I would look for Grant on the reviewing stand. Especially when we received the “Eyes Right!” command so that we acknowledge those in charge. Invariably, our eyes would meet, and Grant would give me a wink or a smile. And I did the same back to him.

As I headed into my twenties, graduated from university, left St. Lambert for Mississauga, and built a new home and a new life for myself, my view of Remembrance Day changed. Perhaps like many of my generation, I became somewhat disillusioned with November 11 and for a time paid little attention to it. Looking back on it now, I think it’s because I saw it as a glorification of war. An expression of militarism.  I found it hard to relate to. I didn’t even bother to wear a poppy. 

The traditional ceremonies, which never changed from year to year, just didn’t do it for me. I guess I lost the desire to hear “The Last Post”, observe the moment of silence at the stroke of 11:00 a.m.,  and the other elements of Remembrance Day.  I kept thinking that it just didn’t work for me. Instead, I would often think about the quest for world peace, or of trying to make the world a better place.  Remembering not just our Canadian soldiers, but those who fought against them. Reflecting on the futility of war and wondering if the world really has changed that much since the days of  ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome – all elements that I still consider today when I do my own personal reflections every November 11.

I quoted the second verse of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “Recessional”, which he wrote in honour of Queen’s Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, at the beginning of this passage. The verse which follows it comes to mind now in light of what I just wrote above:

Far-called our navies melt away— on dune and headland sinks the fire.

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget!

As an aside, you can read the entire poem by visiting:

Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional poem

It also seemed to me that the ceremonies every November seemed too old-fashioned and out of place. That maybe it was time for a “refresh”. A new way of looking at the day and what it meant to me and so many others. I kept thinking that we needed to tear apart the traditional Canadian Remembrance Day ceremonies that in many ways followed the British model. As opposed to our American friends, who observe November 11 as Veterans Day – a day to show their encouragement and support for the troops serving at home and abroad, but then pay tribute to their war dead on Memorial Day – the last Monday in May. Like the Brits, we Canadians tend to merge these 2 elements and observe it all on November 11 every year.

As an aside, while noting that Americans use Memorial Day as the time to honour their war dead, I usually wear an American flag tie during the week following Memorial Day, in tribute to my American ancestors from my mother’s family who served the USA in conflicts such as the Revolution, 1812 and the Civil War. And in more recent times one of my cousins served in the US Navy. Shannon – should you ever read this entry, I proudly salute you and thank you for your service to America.

I’m not sure when or why, but at some point I rediscovered November 11, and grew to appreciate it again. I know that the “disillusionment” I just talked about lasted well into my 30’s and maybe even into my 40’s. It was only in more recent times that it all began to change yet again. I suspect there were many elements at play. Maybe it was the passage of time, and that as I grew older I began to understand the symbolism of November 11 more fully. Perhaps it was watching Grant, along with a second uncle who served in the Army during World War 2 (Garry) grow older and then die. Along with their comrades from those now long-ago days. Being born in 1956, and therefore part of the first postwar generation (aka the “Boomers”), I was being confronted with the reality that not only was I getting older, but that many people and things associated with my youth were dying. Especially the veterans from World War 2. Something that was still fresh in the minds of many on those Sunday November afternoons back in St. Lambert so many years ago was now fading into history.

It wasn’t until my 20’s and 30’s that I really got to know the other uncle who served in WW2. Unlike Grant (who I saw often during my childhood years because their home was also in St. Lambert – just a short drive from ours), Garry moved to Ontario after the War. For a few years, he lived here in Hamilton, but then moved to Barrie, a city located on the shores of Lake Simcoe, about a one hour drive north of Toronto. I spent many hours with Garry in his later years, talking with him at home or taking him out for lunch at his favourite burger joint – where, of course, everyone knew Garry, loved him, and treated him like royalty.

Over the years I have spent many weekends in Collingwood – a town located on Georgian Bay, about a 45 to 60 minute drive west of Barrie. Whether it’s a winter weekend skiing at Blue Mountain (one of Ontario’s largest and best known resort destinations – a short drive out of town), visiting friends that I know from All Saints (the town’s Anglican church), or for other reasons, I know that area of south-central Ontario well. One of those visits came several months after Garry died.  And the end of that visit led to a wonderful moment that I will always remember. I don’t remember what actually happened – maybe something during that visit triggered some memories. But rather than driving straight home from Collingwood to Mississauga (where I was living at the time), when I got to Stayner I didn’t keep heading south down Airport Road. Instead I turned left at the main traffic light in the small community, continued onto Highway 26,  headed east for Barrie and a visit to that very same burger joint where Garry and I had spent so many afternoons together.

After I parked my car and walked into the diner, the owner looked at me and said something like: “You’re Garry Brown’s nephew. I remember when you used to bring him here!”. I smiled at the recognition and said yes. “Put your wallet away”, he told me. This meal was free. I could order anything I wanted and it was on the house.  For him and the others who worked at the diner, it was their way of thanking me for looking after my uncle, and their dear friend. I lost count of how many times I thanked them. And walked out with a tear in my eye that turned into full blown crying by the time I reached my car.

I just sat there crying for a few minutes remembering Garry and after regaining my composure, I pulled out of the parking lot and resumed my journey back home. Yes, it had been a long, out-of-the-way detour. But the memories it generated (not to mention an unexpected free meal!) made it all worthwhile.

Garry and I talked about many things, whether it was sitting at his home, at lunch at that burger place or elsewhere. Not always, but sometimes when the mood struck him, he would talk to me about the War and his experiences. About taking part in the Italian Campaign of 1943 to 1945 as the soldiers moved north from Sicily and up into the Alps. The bloody battle of Monte Cassino that was an important part of the Campaign. The long weeks and months of training before they went to Europe. Other things that he just wanted to share with me.

I always felt humbled that he wanted to do that. But just as it was for Grant, Garry never really felt comfortable telling war stories. Although he would talk to me about it, I always sensed that it wasn’t easy. I could often hear the pain and sadness in his voice. His facial expressions as he reflected on those times. I sometimes wondered why he did it. I would have understood if all this was just too painful to talk about. But he did it perhaps in spite of all that.  Maybe he figured that as his nephew I would appreciate it. And I did. Listening to Garry made me understand more of why they and millions of others did what they did. Both Garry and Grant never thought of themselves as  heroes. To both of them, enlisting and going to war just seemed like the right thing to do. It was no different for thousands of other veterans across Canada.

When Garry died in 1994, I was proud to serve as a pallbearer at his funeral. He had never been much for organized religion, so the service was held at a funeral home in Barrie, officiated by the rector of Trinity Anglican Church. Ironically, the Rev. Canon David Busby was a close personal friend, so I was pleased that he was officiating. Little did I realize that only a few months later I would return to Barrie to attend David’s own funeral, held shortly after his tragic death in a Caribbean plane crash in November 1994.  And when my cousin Bev asked me to read Psalm 121 to the  congregation assembled at the funeral home to remember her father (which included several members of Royal Canadian Legion’s Barrie Branch, officially known as Branch 147 – where Garry had been an active member for many years), it was a very emotional time for me. But I did it in thanksgiving for a lot of wonderful hours spent together with my uncle.

In case anyone reading this is wondering, my father did not go to war. Dad wanted to, but when he tried to enlist in the fall of 1939 as a strong and husky 21 year old man, he failed his medical. Seems he had contracted rheumatic fever a few months earlier and traces of it were still in his system.  The same thing happened on a few other occasions when he tried again to enlist. So in the end, he stayed in Montreal and did his part on the home front. For example, he acted as postman for his 2 brothers. Garry and Grant would send their letters to Dad in Montreal, who in turn forwarded them down to New Carlisle, the small Gaspe town that the Browns came from – so that my grandparents, as well as a 3rd uncle (Bob was too young to enlist) and my 3 aunts could keep up to date on things.  I remember Dad telling me many times that he was always haunted by the fact that he couldn’t enlist. How people would stare at him as he walked the Montreal streets or ask him why he wasn’t overseas. I think that’s part of what pushed him to be a postmaster for his brothers, and no doubt do other things to help out as well.

When the War finally ended in 1945, Garry and Grant didn’t see each other for a while.  I remember several family members telling me about how they finally met up by chance in England. I don’t remember the exact details, but I think it was something about Grant walking into a pub, someone recognized him and told him that his brother was also there. After a moment or two, they found each other and embraced for some time. An emotional reunion indeed.

Today, my appreciation of Remembrance Day has been rekindled. I suspect it’s from all the things I mentioned above. Sad to say, but it might also be due to the deaths of our gallant Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  I also think my renewed interest in the Day has been mirrored in the rest of Canada. It seems to me that more people than ever are wearing poppies, attending the Cenotaph ceremonies, observing 2 minutes of silence, taking the time to remember, offering their support, appreciation and encouragement not just to our veterans, but also to those serving today.

I think there are many reasons for this. The current conflict in Afghanistan is one. Another is the fact that those brave men and women who served in WW2 are dying and will not be with us for much longer. With that comes a sense of urgency to remember and honour them before their generation is gone forever. As proof of this,  I read a newspaper article in early November 2009 which mentioned some rather intriguing statistics compiled by Veterans Affairs Canada which I would like to share with all of you.

The statistics note that as 2009 ends, the average age of a World War 2 veteran is 87. Just over 1 million Canadians enlisted between 1939 and 1945, with 47,000 Canadian casualties. So while that means roughly 1 million troops came home,  Veterans Affairs Canada  estimates that 163,500 are left today, almost 65 years after the war’s end.  While not mentioned in the VA Canada stats, I have also learned that they are dying at the rate of about 400 veterans per week (roughly 21,000 per year) , a rate which will likely increase as they grow older.

In 2011, as part of revisions to this blog entry, I learned that VA Canada now lists the number of World War 2 veterans still alive as 150,000 and that 400-500 die each week. That reinforces what I noted when I first wrote this entry in November 2009. That in 15 to 20 years – if not before, it’s a safe bet that the last of them will be gone. 

Another factor in the renewed interest in Remembrance Day could also be due to the observance of some poignant anniversaries in recent years. 2009 marked both the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War 2 – just to cite a couple. 2010 marked 65 years since the war ended (May 2010 in Europe and September 2010 in the Asia-Pacific theatre of war). For these and many other reasons, it seems that Remembrance Day is more prominent today than ever. I for one applaud this, and hope that the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month will be observed by future generations, long after I am gone.

As always, I have subjected you, my readers, to another long post. My apologies and thank you for reading this. I really appreciate that you have read this far, thanks so much. But before I go, let me share a personal moment with all of you, which took place at about 5:45 on the morning of November 11, 2009. I am fortunate that the Cenotaph located at Gore Park in downtown Hamilton is a short walk from this apartment. Since this was Wednesday, it was a HAPPEN day, our regular Burlington meeting to be more precise, which took place each Wednesday morning at the Burlington Arts Centre. For those not familiar with us, we’re Canada’s largest executive network. Since 1991 we have helped thousands of people at the executive, management and similar levels who have been in career transition find new jobs. We believe it’s done through the power of networking. To learn more about us, visit the HAPPEN Web site The Burlington Transit bus route that I take every Wednesday morning just happens to stop right across the street from that Cenotaph.

So when I was preparing to leave home that morning and do my usual walk downtown, I decided to do something different. I left a few minutes earlier than usual, and instead of walking directly to the bus stop, I made a small detour. To the Cenotaph. As one might expect at that hour, it was rather quiet. Not too many people wandering around in the early morning darkness. But that was what I had hoped for.  I placed my “kit” bag to one side, and decided to just quietly stand there for a moment, with my head bowed in prayer. I kept a moment of silence, and then offered a brief prayer to thank God for all those gallant men and women who gave their lives in service to Canada. And commended them to His care. Then a final extra special prayer to remember Garry and Grant, and asking that they too might rest in peace.

Before I left the Cenotaph, I took a poppy out of my coat, gently kissed it, and then placed it on the steps, just beside one of the wreaths left over from last Sunday morning’s ceremonies.  I suspect the wind carried it away even before I crossed the street to catch my bus to our Burlington HAPPEN meeting. Where we did indeed honour Remembrance Day at 11:00 a.m.. As part of our observances, we watched a very special video called “A Pittance of Time”. It’s a song written by Terry Kelly, a Nova Scotia musician and it’s an incredible way to describe what Remembrance Day really means.

You can see the video at:

 http://www.terry-kelly.com/pittance/pittance_en.htm or if that doesn’t work, the Royal Canadian Legion also provides a link to the song at:


In closing, I wish to dedicate this special Remembrance Day entry to all the brave men and women who gave their lives in service to Canada. And also to those veterans like my 2 uncles, Garry and Grant, who came home but who are no longer with us.

Rest eternal grant unto Garry, Grant and all those who died for us on the battlefield, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful commended to You, rest in peace.

Finally, I close with the words of British poet Laurence Binyon. The verse I wish to quote is in fact from a longer poem: “For the Fallen”, which was first published by The Times of London in September 1914,  but which many people call the “Act of Remembrance”. It’s something you hear often at this time of year, and it’s a fitting way to end this blog entry:

“They shall not go old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them”.

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