It’s Remembrance Day, marking 98 years since the guns fell silent during the First World War. There’s very little wisdom or insight that I can offer that hasn’t been said better by someone else over the course of those 98 years. But there is a story I can tell, something that’s become part of how I personally observe Nov. 11. I hope it can be part of how you remember the sacrifices of our troops, too.
A few years ago, my wife and I were looking to buy a house in midtown Toronto, much closer to where I worked. We got to know the area quite well, given all the time we spent driving from open house to open house. There was one house we looked at fairly on in the process. We didn’t like it, wasn’t for us. But there was a home just a few doors down from it that did stick out. It was a nice house, but it really stood out: I guess the street grid had changed since it was built and its “front” door opened out to the side, compared to the rest of the street. I remember standing in front of it, checking it out. It just struck me as curious.
Around the time my wife and I were doing this, my father was embarking on a little project of his own. He got all the military records of his relatives from National Defence (the government has been posting them online for years now). His father, my grandfather, was in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. He was the only survivor of a crash that killed his whole crew, but came home OK himself. My father’s grandfathers had served, in the First World War. One was shot and had a permanently disabled wrist, the other was gassed and died an early death after the war ended. My father’s uncles also served in the next war, and one of them, Willard Rolland, never came home.
It’s a story told in the family down through the years, but the short version is this: he was also RCAF, a pilot. A good one. So good, in fact, that instead of going overseas to fight, he was selected to stay behind in Canada and train new aircrews as part of BCATP. He was disappointed; he wanted to fight. His family, including my great-aunt, then pregnant with his child, was relieved. Everyone assumed he’d be safe at home in Canada, training crew, instead of overseas, flying combat missions.
It didn’t work out that way. On July 7, 1944, during a training flight, the plane was hit by lighting and suffered major damage. My dad’s uncle manually kept the plane steady while his crew bailed out. He then tried to bail out himself, but his parachute snagged on the plane. He was dragged all the way down to the ground by his own chute cords, but the medical examiner believed he’d probably died before that. They thought the cords kept slapping his body against the airframe as the plane went down in the dark.
He was 28 years old. He never met his son.
Part of the war record that my dad accessed was a huge volume of paperwork sent by the War Department to the family. The documents are all marked with the address the papers and letters and notifications were sent to. I saw that it was just a few blocks away from the home we ended up buying. I put the address into Google Maps.
It’s the house with the door that faces the “wrong” way. The house I’d stood outside admiring because it’s so lovely. It sends chills down my spine to think that the front lawn I stood on, checking out the home with a house-hunter’s eye, was where a car pulled up, more than 72 years ago, so a telegram could be delivered to a family that didn’t know when they woke up that morning that their son and husband had died “approx. 10 miles west” of Brandon, Manitoba, training other young Canadians (and allies) how to fight a war we never wanted but had to win.
Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on AM 640 in Toronto.