Michaels: Cheerful memories can’t disguise outrage of war

When I pin on my poppy in years to come, I’ll keep Mr. Morimoto in mind as well as my loved ones.

Up until this week, nothing left me feeling more conflicted than pinning a poppy to my lapel.

It’s nothing to do with faltering respect for the men and women who fought for this country. It’s just that the poppy heralds Remembrance Day—an occasion that has increasingly become a bit too rah-rah-rah, when it should be more In-Flanders-Field, for lack of a better way to describe it.

Like many my age, much of my understanding of war comes from members of a generation that’s fading into history.

My granddad and grandmother both served in the Army—being English, I don’t think they were given much choice—and the scars of those years were still more than apparent over 20 years ago, when I saw them last.

In part, because they lived in Coventry. As anyone who’s been there knows, the damage of war is woven into that local culture.

Nov. 14 1940, the Nazis aimed to take out the growing industrial capabilities of the midlands.

Under the cloak of night their bombers demolished thousands of homes, a couple of hospitals and, as the city burned, Coventry Cathedral was cracked open.

As the next day dawned, a decision was made to rebuild the church with ruins intact.

In particular, two medieval roof timbers had fallen into the shape of the cross, and  they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the words “Father Forgive” inscribed on the sanctuary wall.

As a child who was regularly making the trip there from green, pristine and nearly wild B.C., the sight was wholly enthralling.

I’d pester my granddad non-stop for information on what he did during the war. Where, for example, was he when those bombs fell?

Did he shoot people? Did he hate Germans?

He diverted me through benign half-truths and told me instead about how much he hated Margaret Thatcher. Also interesting.

That said, as I got older and continued on with my prodding, I came to realize that memories of those years weren’t benign. My grandmother, I learned, had some form of mental illness from her time in the war. Relatives have since decided it’s post traumatic stress disorder, but a diagnosis decades after the fact isn’t exactly helpful.

My granddad had survived, but carried a heavy burden of loss and sadness that he passed on to his children.

And others  fared worse. Men and women I didn’t really notice when I was a kid getting jacked up on sweets, crisps and the sight of broken down churches started coming out of the shadows as I got older.

With a little explanation from my mum, I was able to see there was a generation hollowed by war, and they hadn’t just passed into the footnotes of history, they were the walking wounded whom many looked away from as they passed on the street.

It’s with that in mind that I’ve always pinned a poppy to myself.  They deserve to be acknowledged for their sacrifices.

But, as I’ve become older, and taken a job as a reporter, so often the story I’ve been asked to tell is one of success and jubilation. And the best-years-of-their-lives narrative, is unsettling.

To avoid that, I’ve tried to avoid all Remembrance Day story assignments as my own homage to my family, their friends and neighbours and their cumulative loss.

This week, however, I wasn’t able to and it may have been the best thing I’ve ever done.

I interviewed a Kelowna man by the name of Tom Morimoto. The now 94-year-old was the only Japanese Canadian on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and his tale is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

But, his placement in history isn’t something he thumped his chest about. In fact, he took on a familiar evasive tone when I asked him questions about the invasion.

What he did answer frankly, however, was my question about why the occasion has become almost celebratory.

He explained, simply, that those who didn’t live through that time may never understand what soldiers endured when they enlisted. More importantly, however, as time has edged along, the dreams and memories that haunted them haven’t gone away. But one can’t move forward when they wallow in the horrors of the time.

With some simple insights, Mr. Morimoto reconfigured my view in a way I’ll be forever grateful for and when I pin on my poppy in years to come, I’ll keep him in mind as well as my loved ones.  I’ll also take a moment to hope all of those who served found happier times.

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