Like most North American children, my kids have no firsthand knowledge of war, and for that I am eternally grateful. They do know that their grandfather had been a pilot during the Second World War and that, as they tell it, “He went to fight that bad guy Hitler”. It’s a subject that usually ends in quiet introspection, for all of us.
My father-in-law Paul enlisted at the age of eighteen and was stationed with the RAF in England. There he was taught to fly Stirlings, massive four-engine bombers that, in his crew’s case, were used as supply planes to drop food and medical provisions to allied troops and civilians on the ground. The nature of their payloads demanded dangerously low altitude drops, usually through hostile enemy airspace. They were shot at regularly but never shot down, though they saw many of their fellow airmen perish. Eventually Pilot Officer Deacon was one of the lucky ones to make it home alive.
In the years I had the privilege of knowing Paul, I only heard him speak of the war once. It was at a typically boisterous family dinner in Ottawa with his five grown children and their partners, and when the topic somehow came up, the table fell silent. None of us other than Adelle, his cherished bride of forty plus years, knew the soldier, the man who had risked his own life so that we could all be sitting there that night. I don’t remember the content of the story as much as the look of pained anguish when he told it. It was mirrored in all of our faces as we tried to imagine a past we would never fully understand.
When Paul died years later at the age of seventy-three, many of the stories died with him, while others have been kept alive and well in the care of Adelle. It was she who suggested Andrew and I take her grandchildren to see the new war memorial in London’s Green Park last spring while on our trip to England. On that record breaking cold day in March we stood shivering in the face of the enormous monument honouring the thousands of Allied airmen who perished in the War. To our children, born long after he died, it was as if they were meeting their grandfather for the first time. They stared in silence at a part of their own history immortalized in bronze, a part of all of our histories.
Lest any of us, anywhere, ever forget.