Like many baby boomers, my family has a large veteran component who served overseas during WW2. Most of the people I went to school with from our small town also came from families with veterans, including some who never came home. As school children, we trooped to our local cenotaph every year for Remembrance Day services. Each one of us remembered the familiar faces of our fathers, uncles and other family members as we collectively recited In Flanders Fields.
One of those faces that came to mind was Jack Williams, a special family friend who fought and survived The Battle of the Somme in WWI when he was still a teenager. My Uncle Jack was a Hong Kong veteran who never completely recovered from his four-year internment as a prisoner-of-war in Japan from 1941 to 1945. Uncle George, Uncle Bill, and Uncle Jim fought in Europe. Two of them were part of the Canadian forces who liberated Holland. They never discussed their service. My maternal grandmother was an English war-bride from WWI who met my Canadian grandfather when he was stationed in Folkestone, England. They were married on November 11, 1918, Armistice Day.
My father, Clayton Duff is also a veteran, but like most veterans a modest one. He was stationed at the Debert army base near Halifax on May 8, 1945 when the war in Europe officially ended. Along with thousands of other young Canadians who volunteered and trained, many of them just teenagers like my father, they were there ready to be shipped overseas but VE Day changed everything. It’s worth noting that Canada’s entire armed forces during the war were made up entirely of volunteers. Canada did not have conscription.
Despite his legitimate qualifications as a veteran, Dad resisted applying for veterans’ benefits late in life. Even though he served a year and a half in the army, he was reluctant and felt less deserving of being called a veteran because he hadn’t been in combat. He was in his nineties when I finally convinced him to let me contact Veterans’ Affairs about assistance for hearing aids. He thought there were other veterans more deserving and insisted they should receive assistance instead of him. I finally managed to convince him to accept the benefits by reminding him that most of the WW2 veterans were now gone and he was entitled. When I spoke to Veterans’ Affairs on his behalf, the V.A. staffer acknowledged that is a common response among older veterans. They were willing to lay down their life for their country, but reluctant to claim benefits for their service in case someone else needed it more. Two years ago he was a proud guest of honour when a new veterans’ memorial that includes his name was unveiled in his hometown of Roseneath, Ontario, along with the names of other young men he grew up with who had also volunteered.
The Royal Canadian Legion was a large part of the growing up experience for so many baby boomers. We’re the outcome. Our small town had an active Legion branch and my father served as Secretary-Treasurer for five years, and eventually President of our local branch during the fifties. Back then, it was my job to act as his secretary to sit beside him at his desk and help stamp and stuff envelopes for Legion business mailings. Like churches in the fifties, the Legion was an integral part of the community, raising funds for local causes and bringing families together for summer picnics, carnivals, and children’s Christmas parties. The local Legion hosted wedding receptions, funeral receptions, and a variety of other social events. It was an active and integral part of the community. When my parents moved to Cornwall in the 1970s, Dad lost touch with his original local Legion branch but still paid his annual dues to support their work. For nearly fifty years he sent a cheque for his membership to a Legion he no longer attended.
When he was eighty-six years old Dad planted a new apple tree in his garden. At the time, I thought that was the ultimate expression of optimism. Would he live long enough to enjoy the literal fruits of his labour? Dad is now ninety-four and lives in a lovely retirement residence on an island in Campbellford, Ontario bordered by the tree-lined Trent Canal on the west and the Trent River Ranney Falls gorge on the east. It’s a beautiful and caring environment. Since moving to the residence he’s enjoyed a variety of new experiences including trying haggis and mussels for the first time in his life and cold cucumber soup. He’s taken up reading novels and is still open to new adventures which is heartening. Before COVID struck, he also attended weekly church services at the residence after not doing so for more than five decades. It’s a kind and gentle life.
Fast forward to 2020. My mother passed away more than five years ago, and it’s been more than three years since Dad returned to our hometown where my brother and I grew up. Although he was too old to still be of service and not knowing any of the current members, Dad continued paying his Legion dues. Then, came the news that due to COVID, his local Branch 103 has been temporarily closed. That seemed to end his hopes of a Legion funeral if anything happens to him before this pandemic ends. He worried about how he was going to maintain his membership without a local branch.
Dad still receives the regular Legion magazine as part of his membership. He looks forward to and reads each issue cover to cover, often relating to me some of the articles he’s read. The latest issue included a promotional offer for Remembrance Day 2020. If he prepaid his annual dues for five years, he would receive a commemorative Lest We Forget wristwatch. As an antique clock and watch afficionado, how could he resist an offer like that? The problem was the ad included a response on the Canadian Legion’s website and, not surprisingly, Dad does not have a computer. So he called me to see if I could order it for him and renew his membership for another five years, which I have done. That means he’s now paid up until 2025 when he’ll be ninety-nine years old. He’ll probably last longer than the watch. And I have no doubt he’ll make it.
Once again, Dad has again demonstrated the optimism and fortitude that our veterans are known for. We’ll miss them when they’re gone and most of them are now gone. There’s a reason they will be forever known as “The Greatest Generation”. Dad’s tombstone is already in place alongside my mother. The inscription from a poem by Robert H. Smith reads “The clock of life is wound but once”. When he’s gone, I hope that the hands of time on his “Lest We Forget” watch still turn because I’ll be measuring my own time remaining on that same watch. Maybe I’ll even plant a new apple tree in his name. Or, better still, a Canadian red maple. He’d like that.