My hands are buried in my pockets as I stand among the crowd gathered at the Queen’s Park cenotaph for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony. It’s cold as it always is on November 11, but the sun shines through the clouds with warm golden light on my face and brings a glow of heat through the chill. I always feel a mix of admiration and sorrow on this day. I’ve never been to war, and I will never know firsthand its horrors and suffering, but I know someone who has: my grandfather.
Donald Ross Riddell flew with the 42nd Division RAF Bombers in WW2 and survived an incredible 92 missions, defying all odds against survival. The average lifespan of an airman in the bombers was 13 missions. The fact that my grandfather flew so many amazes me every time I think about it. Having studied WW2 history in books and documentaries, I know how dangerous bombing was, how conditions in the plane were cramped and freezing, how there was nothing but a thin layer of aluminum protecting the crew from the antiaircraft fire of German guns below, how searchlights found them in the darkness of a night raid, how fighter planes pecked at them with machinegun fire; and the crashes taking all lives, the parachute jumps behind enemy lines as a last ditch effort to survive. I always had the deepest respect for my grandfather because he fought in that vital war, a war fought for noble purposes. Knowing what I know about not just the war, but bombing specifically, makes me respect him even more than I already did.
I think about him probably every day at some point, but especially so on Remembrance Day. This day is meant to remind us of the horrifying wars that were fought in the 20th century, the lives of the fallen who made the ultimate sacrifice, and the dedicated service of the troops fighting across the sea today. They fight a battle many of us will never know, myself included. It’s something that, were there such a cause today, I don’t know if I would have what it takes to fight and survive as my grandfather did. He may have been made of sterner stuff than me, and so may all the soldiers who ran headlong into the machinegun fires of hell, but I may never have to answer that question myself. That’s why I’m one of the lucky ones. We’re all lucky to live in an age of such abundance and safety here in Canada. We owe our gratitude to the thousands of fallen who gave everything so we could have so much.
I’m cold, and my back is getting sore from standing in this November chill with my camera and backpack containing laptop and books as speeches are spoken, songs sung, benedictions given, and wreaths placed. I’m uncomfortable, but to call this suffering is laughable. I want to be uncomfortable because the soldiers fighting in the mud of Paschendale, the airmen flying over West Germany, my own grandfather, were not comfortable. They were sick and freezing, exhausted and afraid. They went to war seeking glory and adventure but all they found was pain and death.
A large airplane flies overhead—it looks like a bomber, maybe a Lancaster like what my grandfather flew in, where he stared into a bombsight and pulled the lever to drop the bombs. It has the right tail fins, it could be—then it’s gone just as soon as it appeared, but I watch the sky for a few moments more hoping it will come back. It doesn’t.
I wear a poppy on my collar like I do every Remembrance Day, but this time I don’t keep it. After all the wreaths are laid in front of the cenotaph on their delicate metal wire stands, everyone proceeds to place their flowers in their preferred one. There are wreaths from all sorts of consulate generals, military associations, and public service organizations, dozens to choose from, but the one I select is close: Ontario Veteran’s Association. It’s a large one in the back, so I gingerly step around the wreaths and shimmy past, careful not to disturb any of them. I slide the needle of my poppy into the artificial evergreen branches and step back. The deed is done. I walk away.
The day is cold but the sun is bright and although I’m feeling stiff from the chill, when I enter the sunlight it soothes and strengthens me. Even though there is so much misery and suffering in war, there always comes a time when the light shines through and life, love, and hope reign again. Every war has to end someday. It’s up to us to remember why we fought so it doesn’t happen again.