Tag Archives: Remembrance Day

Trench Party: Remembering WWI

News from the war: I spent Thursday November 11 Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in the US) in the trenches with the men (and the women) of our nation. Just like those terrible times of World War I I was told, “You’ll have to spend time in the trenches, maybe even storm the barbed wire before you can go to the home front. The home front will be cold and after that you can go to the French bistro” (which one person interpreted as brothel).

As a war correspondent I actually didn’t have gumboots or true mudsy rain gear. To prepare for this run of Vimy Ridge, where the Canadian Corps defeats the German Sixth Army, I dressed warmly and interviewed the soldiers. The roles of women do include being in the trenches but more as nurses, entertainers, drivers and war correspondents. Some women wore pants but I was wearing a respectful nearly ankle length linen dress and a wool, double-breasted trench coat. For food, I brought a baguette, a cheese round with a slice out of it, two apples and a bottle of wine. After all, during the war, one would have to scrounge and take what was available. It’s fall so the applesWWI, war, trench party, remembrance, death, homefront, Vimy Ridge would be greatly appreciated. I also brought little squares of chocolate (2 to a package) wrapped in foil and handed them out as rations. (I don’t know what was rationed in WWI but chocolate, bread, rubber were just a few in WWII.)

As can be seen by the above pictures there was indeed a trench with barbwire. It wasn’t very deep, nor very wide and sandbags were too expensive to bring in. On the wall (a canvas sheet) of the home front there played images of the war and sound effects abounded. You would think those muddy trenches would be empty but in fact there were many people in them throughout the night. When I asked Captain Gilchrist, a doctor on the front lines what the most prevalent injuries were, he told me, “Scurvy, trenchfoot and the French disease.” Trenchfoot is a terrible rotting that happens from perpetually wet and enclosed feet. The French disease, this correspondent cannot speak of here.

Spirits were generally high in the trenches with a good pot of coffee and tea, as well as some other spirits cheering the soldiers. One young lad who might have snuck into the army told me, “It’s very muddy in the trenches and I had to dig.”  Another said, “We had to bail a lot and sleep in them.” Not all sentiments were as hardy with another saying, “Don’t do it!” and “Fodder, that’s what they feel they are.” An unnamed commander was more jovial. “The men are doing a cracking job…a victory for democracy. By George!”

Probably the most popular feeling was expressed by one soldier. “We’re going to give ’em high hell, were giving 110% and we’ll be home by Christmas. God is on our side.” I had brought some poems by famous poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox and read a few to the troops in the trenches. They clamor for her poems as it makes them think of home and better times.

On the home front people were eating squirrel pie, corned beef stew, with bread, hot tea and some Screech to keep them warm. It was dry but chilly though the old stove worked valiantly against the cold November night. Gas masks lay at the ready, along with copies of the newspapers whose headlines are all about the war. The sentiments on the home front varied as people are thinking more about the future and not just surviving the elements and the enemy. Several troops home from the war reported “War is horrid,” as well as the feverish lad who told me “I miss my mommy almost as much as I miss my left leg.”  Other returning soldiers shared their revulsion with “The trenches are like graves,” “They’re fetid,” or such epithets as “The Italians suck seagulls,” and the rest is not printable.

Another doctor sadly reported that, “It’s a tragedy but it’s the mental scars that will ruin this generation. Shell shock is everywhere.” The home front also holds militant thinkers who would like to see the war ended any way they can. “When the waking masses organize against this blood bath we’ll overthrow the imperialist war mongers and put an end to war forever!” The man refused to give his name.

For those who get leave, officers and others stationed near the towns, a night in the French bistro can bring good cheer. Food was abundant in the ways that the French appreciate it. A variety of breads and cheeses, even some pate’ was available. As well, someone must have found a hidden store of wine because we drank heartily that night. A rumor was on the wind of the war coming to an end. One soldier badly affected by the French disease kept mumbling that no one understood his jokes. With a bit of wine everyone laughed wholeheartedly with him. Another war-assaulted victim told me that the rats were good with salt and a bit like gopher. We were lucky to be fed so well and have enough lanterns to light the place.

WWI lasted from 1914-1918. It was a defining war for the role of Canadians, and my friend Sam, who organized the party, said it was more important in the aspects of Remembrance Day than WWII was. He’s right of course since Remembrance Day came in to commemorate the end of the war on November 11, 1918. Unfortunately, we’ve had many wars since and the wars continue. Sometimes they are wars of the masses but most often they are wars of ideals caused by a very few but with a deadly fallout. I find it eternally sad that people can’t just let each other live in peace and that so many have died needlessly. This is what I remembered.

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Remembering

As befits the day, I’m remembering those who I knew who have passed on.

First was Lydia Langstaff, so delicate that she befitted the ideal of a medieval woman. Slender, blond hair, translucent skin with a blue tracery of veins showing beneath. In fact her nails were blue as well. Born with a congenital heart defect, no one thought she would live past infanthood. She could not fly nor even walk up stairs, so fragile was her heart.

Yet Lydia never complained in the few years I knew her. She wrote, a good craft for someone barred from all physical elements. Traveling, of course was out. Lydia was starting to get somewhere with her writing career, having sold a speculative story and a few poems. She had written a novel, which took place in Scotland with an heiress who goes back to the time of her ancestors. Lydia was part of our writers’ group and I was just getting to know her a bit more (we were working on poems together I think) when she died, unexpectedly (though always expected) in the arms of her husband one night.

At 28 she had done much, a flame burning brightly but having to fight a strong wind the whole time. I remember Lydia and the lesson she taught. Don’t give up your dreams, don’t complain. Just do.

Jay Herrington was a friend I worked with in ritual plays. He was beautiful and gay and married to the love of his life, a woman. He and Deb had been school friends and married before he realized his penchant was for men. They knew though, that they did love each other, deeply, and worked around the issues. Jay was known for dressing drag once in a while as High Joan the Conqueror.

He was a talented priest and ritualist, a great artist and just starting to shine even brighter, a rising star. He and Deb made a trip back to their native Florida to bring his younger brother Josh out to Seattle. On the drive back a wheel flew off the car. Jay was sleeping in the back and never woke up. Deb was in a coma for several weeks. Josh walked away with only a scratch but with no brother. They kept Jay’s body alive long enough so that his parents could come and say goodbye. The only blessing was that Jay never woke from his injuries. He was just past 30, and burned so brightly we knew he could have done a lot. I remember Jay and the talent he and humor he brought to us.

Bear (John) Curtis, my friend of many years, was truly a bear of a man at 6’7″. He was much like his ursine namesake, grumpy and short on patience, and liked his darkish cave and backyard full of greenery and trees. But Bear was also generous and creative and deeply spiritual. Part Cherokee, he was a pipe carrier and introduced me to Native sweats and healing circles. People respected his respect of traditions.

He was an actor and had often played mountain men and bad guys in historic westerns. He was very much like a dragon in his hoard. There wasn’t a speck of wall or any surface in his home that didn’t have some trinket or treasure or image upon it. Bear collected bones, which I shared, shiny glass, Beatles paraphernalia and many other things. His greatest treasure was his wife Louise, efferevescent, loving and always joyous. There has never been a couple who balanced each other so well.

But Bear had to go for cancer surgery, which was successful. However, the state of our hospitals meant that he ended up with infections and then C-Defecil. His stubbornness and grumpiness scared some people. The damage to his body was great and Bear was scared himself, though he didn’t talk about except to Louise. He lingered and fought for fourteen months, a testament to the stubbornness he did have. He died last year, a week before Christmas. He was 59, young for his age, but the infection aged him greatly. The hardest thing was seeing his great spirit waste away over those months. I remember Bear for all that he gave me: friendship, creativity, spiritual perspectives.

There have been others, close enough to call friend and having left this life too soon. Gerry Stevens, a creative, strong minded man who was so gentle in his dying. He made it easier on everyone to deal with his dying. Having done chemo for awhile he finally decided to stop it as he was sick from it more than he was healthy. He died with dignity at home with relatively little pain. He always said, if it’s not fun, don’t do it and he had great fun.

Geoffery MacLean and Mischka Ravensfury, whose real names I didn’t know (Gordon [has told me Mischka’s was John Booth. I think I knew he was John but forgot with the Misch personality that I saw so much of). They were men I met in the SCA. Geoffery a humble bear of a man, always willing to help and maybe sometimes lacking in finesse. But he was gentle. He saved me from hypothermia one camping event, keeping me warm in bed, never being ungentlemanly. After years of health issues they diagnosed him with cancer and he had very few months after that diagnosis.

Mischka, was often a troubled man, but a big teddy bear. He tried hard, was a talented metal smith and opened his arms for anyone. Many misfits found welcome in Mischka’s camp. He was killed in a driving accident, never waking from his injuries.

These people, each and every one a bright spark, left their marks on many lives. We sometimes don’t know, indeed often have no idea, of the impact we make on someone. Everyone was human, flawed and perfect. They had good days and bad, pissed people off yet gave their love and attention. Their deaths always teach me a lesson. Live life to the fullest, go for your dreams and tell those who matter that you do indeed care for them. Better late than never.

This day was set aside, originally to mark the passing of those who had died in war. But each of us has our own war to fight and our own way to remember. I think of all the needless deaths, the lives gone far too soon and wonder if there is a better way. And I remember those I knew, keeping something of them alive in my heart.

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Dare to Remember

This was originally published when I wrote for Fearsmag.com. It had to do with our fears and memory.

For everyone, memory is an important aspect of our personalities as well as our culture. Many people are proud of their lineage, and how far back they can trace their ancestors. History is what makes the world. What happened in the past? Did we learn from our mistakes, did we repeat them? Without memory we would be simpler creatures and our world, our inventions and our differences would not be so great.

Science fiction author Gene Wolfe wrote a book called Soldier of Arete, which is about a man whose memory is only a day long. Unless he writes every thought and event down he does not remember from one day to the next what happened in his past, what he accomplished, how he failed or whom he liked and loved.

Amnesiacs must blunder about feeling a certain panic, not knowing how they lost their memories or what they liked or who they were. For some it might be a freeing experience from who they were, but then, they wouldn’t remember so how would they know? For most it would be the cutting loose of identity that would be frightening, suddenly in a world that you know you are part of, but not knowing in what way to act nor what you thought.

November marks the month of remembrance. In Canada it’s called Remembrance Day, in the U.S. Veteran’s Day (once Armistice Day). This day, Nov. 11th was chosen originally in the U.S. by Woodrow Wilson to commemorate the end of World War I. To commemorate means to bring to memory, to remember. Marked forever in our calendars is the day the war ended, when we are to remember all those who lives were lost so that we could keep our freedom.

Just think, without memory we would have no ceremonies—no birthdays for who could remember when they’re born, no Valentine’s Day for who could remember who they loved, no Easter or Christmas for who would remember the significance of a religion started two thousand years ago, no Hallowe’en, no Presidents’ Day, no Mother’s Day, no Father’s Day. Without memory, would God or religion, life or death matter in the same way? No one would remember your accomplishments so fewer would strive for fame. Movies might still exist, if someone could remember how to make them from day to day, but after you saw a film, you would forget it and the stars would be ciphers once again.

As much as our personalities make up who we are by framing our world in a particular perspective and in how we react to any given situation, our memories also make up who we are. Memory is described as the mental processes that modify our behavior in light of previous experiences. We are the sum of our parts. What we remember and how we remember it makes us who we are today. I remember having a small, metal fridge as a child. I loved that fridge; there was nothing special about it but one year it was replaced with a big, shiny new fridge and many little plastic vegetables. Yet, I wanted that old fridge and to this day remember it. Did my parents know how significant the first fridge was? I doubt it. They probably don’t even remember the fridge at all. I, myself, can’t remember why I liked the first fridge so much but I will never forget it. Memory’s a tricky thing.

So here we are, in November and we should remember. Remember what was lost and what was gained. Remember what war does so that it won’t be repeated. Well, we see how well that’s going and how long that memory sticks. For many people not old enough to have relatives in any war it’s hard to think about what we should remember, unless we’re taught it in school. But what exactly, should we remember? The good times? The bad times? And what should we forget? Past slights, embarrassments and failures?

In the course of selecting the memories that are important, we also order them as to the most significant. My fridge memory is not too significant today. The painful memory of being teased at school left a deeper wound and made my personality shift. I used to be shy but learned you had to be tough and louder and laugh first if you didn’t want to get hurt. That’s what I remember.

People who have been abused often have blocked their memories. That horrendous event is far too painful or frightening to bring up and their psyche cannot cope with it. It’s still in there, buried behind some neuro-synaptic door and only the right key can trigger the lock. The person with the buried memory may still have a very screwed up life because of what happened but the psychological detectives have to uncover the secret before they can find a cure. And of course, there’s that risk of implanted false memories. Through hypnosis, psychotherapy and brainwashing, the mind can be reprogrammed to believe something did happen the way it was suggested. Our memories after all are only electrical zaps stored in our brains.

I know someone who suffers from multiple personalities. She’s got quite a few, from a boisterous tart to a sinister old man. The severe abuse she suffered through her young life fragmented her memory and her brain made up different personalities to deal with various situations. What does she remember and what do her other five personalities remember? Is any particular version more truthful or are they all? Like our sight, our memories can play tricks on us. Do we question, “Did it really happen the way I remember?” Some memories fade so that we really can’t quite remember what we did on a particular day, what someone said, or where we were. Yet, other memories are as sharp as broken glass, waiting to stab us with the poignancy of a mortifying or an ecstatic moment.

November might also be a time for many to reflect on what we’ve accomplished through the year. Often the year seems to have flown by. Oh migod I never did finish that novel. I forgot to call so and so for the third month running. Why do we remember and why do we forget? The workings of the mind are still a mystery for all the studies that have been done. Although there are many memories I would rather forget (and damn that mind of mine, it’s not letting me) I’m still grateful I have a choice of memories and that I haven’t forgot what’s important in my life. Now, if I could just remember where I put my keys….

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