by Alan Nanders from Kitchener, ON
Nov 12, 11
My most memorable Remembrance Day did not occur in the month of November, but rather in May 1964.
Barely out of my teens, I was in my first year at the University of Toronto. With my strong background in Army Cadets I had landed a summer job with the Canadian Military. I would be trained during the next few summers to become an Army Officer.
First, there were tedious, but necessary, medical tests at Sunnybrook Medical Centre in Toronto. Back then, Sunnybrook was not a public hospital, but was totally devoted to treating active military personnel, and injured war veterans – many of whom lived there permanently in long-term care.
I marched onto the hospital grounds in my stiff new uniform and my squeaky new boots, my medical file under my arm. I was headed for x-rays.
I saw the wheelchair first. It was parked on a gravel path beside a beautiful flowerbed.
As I got closer, I saw a blue, plaid blanket draped across the man’s lap. There were no feet visible, only the outline of two stumps. As I kept walking I saw that the man’s right arm was amputated.
When I got close enough to make eye contact, I was shaken by what my youthful eyes saw. This man’s face was disfigured. It was red. It looked burnt. His left eye was almost totally shut. A lit cigarette dangled awkwardly from the three fingers that remained of his left hand. It was hard for me to look at him. But I knew I would have to greet him in passing.
When I mumbled “good morning”, the man contorted his pained face into a smile.
“Good morning, sir” the man said.
He was probably old enough to be my grandfather.
But he must have noticed my single rank pip with the strip of white cloth, indicating my lowly Officer Cadet status. What right did I have to be called “Sir” by this experienced old soldier.
As the man continued to speak, I found it increasingly difficult to listen to him.
“If you don’t mind me saying so sir,” he said, “Is this not a wonderful spring day we’ve been blessed with! Does it not make you feel good to be alive?”
A lump formed in my throat. I felt embarrassed by the tears that were creeping into my eyes. How could this man find anything to be joyful about?
My military pride would not allow me to linger.
“Yes, it is a beautiful day” I said, in a husky, firm and masculine tone. “Now, you’ll have to excuse me, I am almost late for my appointment”.
My stomach was churning.
“Of course sir,” replied the man.
And he raised his three fingered hand in a respectful salute.
I returned his salute and marched off, as the first tear escaped the corner of my eye.
Inside, the nurse told me the man’s name was Charlie. He had been injured almost 50 years earlier, in a gas and artillery attack in France. He had been confined to his wheelchair and the hospital ever since.
It has been more than four decades since my one, brief encounter with Charlie on that beautiful spring day. But I think of him often. And when I do, I am filled with a sense of awe, and respect, for the indomitable quality of the human spirit.