My father joined the Canadian Forces when he was 19 and served overseas during WWII. This was something he never really talked about with me, even though, as you can imagine, I tried. I was interested in where he’d been and what his experiences were and he was interested in not talking about it. I understand many vets were reluctant to tell their stories and my father was one of their number.
During his time in the hospital he did talk a little more about being in the war. I had brought up the movie “Dunkirk” and he said that it was good for people to remember. Then he talked a little more about his experiences, not much but more.
I want here, in this last post I’m going to write about my Dad, for now, I want to remember a brief conversation I had with Dad about the war when I was just becoming a teenager.
First though, let me say that I never heard my father utter a racial epithet. I’m not saying he never did, I don’t know that, I was a boy and know only how he spoke around children, I no nothing of how he spoke around other men, but I never heard him. This is noteworthy because, of course, I heard those words elsewhere and I heard them used unchallenged. It was somewhere around 1964 when I was about twelve that I had a conversation with Dad that I have always remembered and in a sense, it has guided me.
We were speaking about a report on television about racism. Out of the blue, and without any of my persistent questioning, Dad told me a story. He said that when he enlisted he expected to find camaraderie amongst his fellow recruits. He did. This was a war with Germany. His was a German last name. He found himself expelled from the social life of his unit. There was another fellow experiencing the same thing. A black man, also Canadian, also enlisted, also excluded. They hung around with each other at first by chance and necessity and then by choice. They liked each other. But my dad notice that while he was socially excluded, his friend experienced exclusion accompanied by force. Dad never felt endangered, but he knew that his friend did. He hated that.
My dad said that the saw first hand what prejudice did to people. He had tasted it but he’d seen the full measure of its cruelty inflicted on someone he cared about.
That was it.
I wanted more.
I didn’t get more. I don’t know what happened to this man. I don’t know what his name was. I don’t know if he made it through the war.
I did know, though, that war changed my father. Both on the battlefield and in the barracks my father got a glimpse of the various kinds of horrors that humans do to humans.
I’m not sure why he told me that story that day.
But it mattered to me.