Posted by: alexhickey | November 11, 2016

What is it to Remember? ©

What is it to remember?

What is it we remember on Remembrance Day?

These two questions have dogged me all my life.  As a child in elementary school we drew and coloured brilliant red poppies, taped them to classroom walls, read John McCrae’s, “In Flanders’s Fields” and looked forward to a holiday, even if it did come in the middle of the week!  That was it! Older kids may have drawn tombstones and wooden crosses for I recall seeing them on the walls as well. Beyond that there is little to remember about school experiences associated with Remembrance Day. If we make paper poppies and stick them on walls is that remembering? If it is then what are we remembering beyond how to make paper poppies?

It wasn’t until early adulthood that the kind of remembering I do now began to emerge; after I’d attained a level of knowledge of war and empathy for those people who willingly or unwillingly engaged in such conflict.  That awareness of consciously remembering, deliberately forcing myself to pause and think, to reflect and appreciate took some time to emerge.  My awakening wasn’t triggered by war or conflict but by seeing people wearing blue blazers emblazoned with an embroidered crest of the Royal Canadian Legion.  As I look back now I can see Joe and Romaine Drake coming out of their house on their way to a Legion meeting in Belleoram wearing their impeccable blazers.  I can see my mother positioning a beret on her head as she prepared for a Ladies Auxiliary meeting.  I recall wondering why they were members of the Legion. They hadn’t been to the battlefield.  As far as I knew then there were no war veterans in my community. And therein lay the problem.  The generation that still remembered forgot to share with the next generation how to remember and why it is significant to remember.   I don’t blame them.  They lived in a time when memories of war were beginning to fade, where survivors were few and those who didn’t come back were mere names mentioned when someone ‘s memory was triggered.

Lieutenant Francis Burke 1888-1918

Lieutenant Francis Burke 1888-1918

Remembering became passive, it became more about the symbols and less about the events and people in them.   In the back of the Roman Catholic Church there was a plaque honouring Francis M. Burke who died in World War 1. In the Anglican Church there was a Baptismal Font dedicated to the memory of John Evans, who was also lost during World War One.  No one drew attention to their names or told their stories.  Perhaps it was less about forgetting and more about the passage of time.  I grew to know Jacob (Jip) Fiander and Eric Skinner who had survived WWII.  Jip had served with the Canadian Infantry and Eric with the British Merchant Navy.  Over time I learned the names of men from St. Jacques who sailed dangerous waters around Newfoundland and throughout the Atlantic and how they struggled for recognition.  I also heard derisive comments because someone received a Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) pension and hadn’t served in the war; supported by the shallow argument that all they did was sail between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and what was the danger in that? Never mind the sinking of the S. S. Caribou in 1942, the HMCS Shawinigan and the HMCS Valleyfield in 1944; all of them off the South Coast.

I drifted into passivity as well, paying little attention, thinking less and less of soldiers, war and service as fewer and fewer people in the community remembered until one year I decided, as a photographer, to document the Legion Parade on Remembrance Day in Belleoram.  On that occasion I kept pace with Alan Jensen and Leo May as they proudly carried their flags.  I climbed on the bridges of houses to get elevated shots and rushed before the marchers to get them as they approached.   Through those images I began to understand why they marched, why they remembered and why I too should remember.  I realized it wasn’t about the event it was about the stories embedded in the faces of those who marched; the stories that still at eighty years of age they couldn’t bring themselves to share; the stories of families at home imagining the worst outcome every day and night; the stories of children who grew up without a mother or father who didn’t return, and those families where the returning soldier shouted and cried in his sleep every night until he died of old age.  I realized it was about the pride in the hearts of those who marched that day; the pride they felt for having done their part; the pride in their fellow comrades who still remembered and who marched alongside them ignoring the rheumatism in their aging joints.  It was about the pride their children and grandchildren felt because they viewed them as heroes despite the reluctance these veterans felt to be ascribed that status.

There were more people marching than watching, a sign of things to come for soon the marchers dwindled, the marches ended, the Legion struggled to survive, eventually folded and is now remembered mostly for having occupied a particular building. Remembrance Ceremonies still occur with local towns assuming a role.  Attempts have been made to re-discover who they were who went off to war during the last century and to keep their names in the lived memories of local residents.

My remembering on this day is for the faces of those who put their lives at risk to fight, to those who supported the men and women who did, to those who assumed greater responsibilities in order to enable others to serve and those who wanted to serve but were unable to do so.   Those of us who haven’t lived through the immediacy of war are challenged to know the urgency, the fear and trepidation, the not knowing.  The best we can do is remember those who did live through such horrific experiences and to ensure others know their stories.

Today I remember the members of my own family whose lives have been touched by war.  My paternal grandfather James Corcoran served with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and saw action in Europe.  His son Jim served in the Canadian Army as a young man.  My Uncle Fred Hickey and my father Alex Hickey worked with the Americans to build  the  Fort McAndrew Base and the Naval Station in Argentia. My grandfather George Hickey served as light keeper on St. Jacques Island during WWII where he maintained vigils watching for enemy vessels, particularly the submarines they listened to late at night when they surfaced to charge their batteries.  My cousin John Hickey served in the Canadian Navy. Another cousin Jason McCarthy is still serving with the Navy.  My brother Paul recently retired from a career in the Canadian Navy after having seen action several times.  And I remember, my nephew Tony Hickey who is currently on a NATO tour in Europe and the Middle East.

Today’s remembrance is of the crews of Canada’s naval ships, the families waiting at home, my family members alive and deceased whose days were touched by what it means to be in conflict and at war. I remember the faces of those people whose lives touched mine in the years I grew up in St. Jacques who carried memories and experiences I now wish I had known. I remember the stories I have been fortunate enough to inherit and those of the descendants of those who served.  I remember how fortunate I’ve been over the years to get to know such men as James Johnson, George Paul, Eric Skinner, Joe Drake, Tim McCarthy and so many others who served in diverse capacities.  I remember the many from my family who made valiant decisions to serve.  I remember the fallen on both sides of conflicts, the anonymous faces in old war photographs, the children whose lives are cut short through atrocities, the victims of opportunists in war zones and I remember the misguided actions of leaders who fail to realize the power of their words and actions and the devastating impact they have outside their limited field of vision.

I remember by never letting myself forget.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for this post…..I recall all the WW1 and WW2 from St.Jacques and I remember the excitement around the harbour when “our boys” came home….We were out in the Back Cove,when we heard the church bell ring..on VE Day….I have a photo of a “parade” we children had..set up by the teacher ,perhaps..You are right-on in delving into the reason of:why we forgot. John


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