Daughter's Nov. 11 chat with veteran brought tears to our eyes
By IAN ROBINSON
When my daughter Jillian was eight, we took her to the then-Museum of the Regiments on Remembrance Day.
My wife's dad and uncle fought in the Second World War: Her dad John, on a corvette guarding convoys in the North Atlantic, her uncle Clayton fighting his way up the Italian boot, cheerfully carving up the enemy with his bayonet and sending home souvenirs of his kills (unit patches and Iron Crosses) to his mom, many of which are now on display in the small-town Legion where he grew up.
John's eyes would get misty when he talked about the friends he made who never came back.
Clayt never got misty. Ever.
John joined the Royal Canadian Navy partly because he was a gentle soul and had no desire to kill face to face.
And because he figured he would survive the war intact or die.
The thought of going through life on crutches or in a wheelchair horrified this talented, semi-pro baseball player.
Clayt, a not-so-gentle-soul, apparently took to war like Rosie O'Donnell to a box of doughnuts.
When he died, on his coffin, there was a picture of him taken in Italy, grinning, sitting on a captured German motorcycle.
What few in the congregation knew was how Clayt acquired it.
Tired of his army issue motorbike breaking down while he delivered dispatches -- and even more tired of his German counterpart on the other side of the front line laughing at him as he motored past -- Clayt solved two problems at once.
He got up real early one morning, snuck across, killed the laughing German and stole his motorcycle.
There were certain members of this generation that you definitely didn't want to mess with.
My wife and I grew up around veterans and we worried that it might be difficult to transmit our sense of gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy to our kids because such veterans were getting scarce.
Jillian never got to know John or Clayt.
She barely remembered the man with the burned face from church, Garnett Trivett.
I used to sing in the men's choir with him, and had noticed the burn scars but never asked.
Only at his funeral did I find out he was burned when a German 88 shell sliced through the turret of his Sherman tank in the Norman bocage and it went up in flames, fully living up to the nickname given to it by its bitter crews, who called it The Ronson, after the cigarette lighter.
That day at the museum, we went inside and moved from exhibit to exhibit.
Ahead was the slightly bent figure of a white-haired man in the blue blazer above gray flannels, Legion crest on one side, an array of service medals heavy on the other.
My daughter marched up to him.
We adopted her from a Romanian orphanage when she was three.
Ethnically, she's a gypsy -- that's right, loud colours, long skirts, tambourines, fortune-telling, the works -- and we used to try to ensure she knew something of her culture until she sat us down and made us stop, explaining that she was a Canadian now.
But she remembered enough to stride confidently up to the veteran to ask, "Did you fight in the war?" He smiled and allowed as he had.
She stuck out her hand, looking solemn.
"Then I have to thank you," she said.
"I'm a gypsy.
"Do you know what Hitler and the Nazis planned for gypsies? He was going to kill all of us.
"The Jews call what happened to them during the war The Holocaust. Gypsies call it The Devouring, she told him.
"So if you hadn't stopped them, I wouldn't be here.
"Thank you beating them so I could be born and, you know, live and stuff."
Turns out we needn't have worried about Jillian being able to relate to acts of remembrance on Nov. 11.
Turns out we should have worried about bringing enough Kleenex.
Between the vet, my wife and me, we went through a bunch.