What did we fight for? On the morning of victory a son understands what his father had known when he marched away to war 30 years before
THE cemetery sits on the hilltop, where it can see the living.
It is a calm sea of white faces oblivious to the bitter winds and frost of winter; to the glaring sun and heat of summer. There is peace there—and nothing changes it—always peace.
There is a narrow rutted dirt road that skirts the cemetery for a short distance and then vanishes unobtrusively into a small wood where the trees have not yet been cut down to make way for the new homes that are spreading over the hill. The trees are close to this dirt road, overhanging it protectively, as though this gesture, made for generations, will keep the road quiet and peaceful, as it has been for generations.
The boyish-looking man, whose weary eyes alone betrayed his 37 years, picked up a branch that had fallen from one of the trees and whirled it idly as he walked along the road. He remembered that he
had had a big stick that morning 30 years ago when he had walked along this road, under these same unchanged trees, with his laughing, wonderful father beside him. It had been a strange morning . . .
His mother had awakened him much earlier than usual and, even in his youngness, he had felt tension and suspense in the air as soon as he saw the expression on her face. He could always tell when it wasn’t an ordinary morning as soon as he looked at his mother.
“Time to get up, sonny,” his mother said, “because daddy’s going away.”
“Yes, real far. Hurry and dress while I get daddy’s breakfast ready. He must have the best breakfast in his life this morning.”
“He’s going to fight the Kaiser, huh, mummy?”
“Yes, fight the Kaiser. Now hurry.”
“We’ll lick them old Huns, won’t we, mummy? They’re awful people, aren’t they?”
“Their leaders are. Not all of them. Some of them are just like you.”
They ate breakfast in silence, for the most part, and only his father laughed or spoke at all gaily, as he usually did. His mother kept staring at his father, her eyes misting, and she went into the kitchen on many pretexts. But his father wasn’t any different—or at least it didn’t seem that he was. He said many funny things.
He joked about the Army food. “Well, I guess that hardtack won’t taste very good after this bacon and these eggs,” he said. “Now, you mustn’t worry, Kathleen, not with a great big boy like Buster here to take care of you.” He was very proud when his father said that. His father had always called him Buster and somehow, now, walking along this road, it seemed he couldn’t think of himself as John Edward.
That morning his father had taken his last drink of coffee, lingering over it, and then he told his mother, “Kathleen, darling, you make the finest coffee in the world.” His father wiped his mouth with the napkin and then he came over to him and slapped him on the back, man to man, and said, “Buster, let’s you and the old man go for a little walk.”
THEY strolled up the hill, his father holding his hand, and they came to this road. His father found the big stick at the first clump of trees and handed it to him.
“If it had a little more weight it’d make a fine baseball bat,” his father said. And they had talked about baseball and school and all the big, wonderful things that were ahead of him.
“Buster, boy, you don’t have any idea of all the fine things you have to look forward to,” his father said. “A first girl, a girl you love . . .”
“Just like mother . . . And school and making friends and having big arguments and seeing things that make you laugh, and a first job and earning your
own money and making your own home . .
“Just like ours.”
Oh, many of the things he just hadn’t understood exactly and he guessed his father knew it, as they walked under the big trees, because his father said, “Buster, a lot of these things you won’t understand until later and I could never explain them to you as they are. Nobody can do that. Completely. But I wanted to talk to you a little about them. Maybe just for my own sake. You see, Buster, if there are things like these that are worth living for, they’re worth fighting for—and dying for. We want these things. I’ve had a good many of them for myself. And you will. And all the others after you must.”
His father was so serious, with creases in his forehead—his father, whose laugh always boomed like a cannon of good feeling from the hardware store on * Main street. The new feeling was communicated to him as he walked silently. Then his father turned to him and changed in that instant.
“You want me to bring the Kaiser’s crown jewels back for you, Buster?”
“Yes.” And now he smiled too, for his father was laughing. And he knew his father could do it for him if he asked; his father could do anything, if he really wanted to. Yes, he would have the Kaiser’s crown jewels. His father would bring them back to him.
“We’ll go right into Berlin, Buster, and I’ll get those jewels for you.” His father slapped him on the back and they walked on for a while, talking about baseball, and then his father said he guessed they’d better be getting back. They had walked a long way hut he wasn’t the least bit tired. It had been fine, walking with his father like this.
“We’ll play ball lots when you get back, won’t we, daddy?”
“You bet. Every day, Busier.”
rriRIS was the road they bad taken that morning 1 and he twirled the stick idly, thinking of all of these things, recalling them now with a strange combination of sadness and joy.
Finally he turned back and entered the cemetery. The morning dew still covered the grass, the tiny globules glistening in the sun that had peeped out trom a cloud only a few minutes before to welcome the new day. He came to the winding road that led to the far end of the silent cemetery. He walked up the
slight rise, hearing a rooster’s crow faintly from far off, hearing the backfire of a truck on the highway beyond, hearing the merry twittering of birds as they exchanged morning greetings.
All through the night the news had been expected momentarily. From east, west and south they had come, moving relentlessly through a beaten Germany. And now, with morning, he had wanted to come here alone, before it happened, had wanted to be here.
His father’s grave was at the top of the rise, the first one warmed by the sun each morning, the last one forsaken by the sun each evening. He felt a moment’s pride that his father’s overlooked all the others.
The tombstone was as it had always been, a little worn and greyed by the rains and the winds but standing erect above the soft earth. He read the inscription, which he knew by heart, repeating the words to himself:
Sept. 16, 1885 Oct. 19, 1918 He Fought for Canada and Democracy
Maybe they should have made it simply, “Eddie Jones,” he thought, because nobody, except some long-forgotten schoolteacher, had called him Edward. His mother had always said Eddie, so had all of the men who came into his store and everybody he had ever known. “That Eddie Jones sure has a hearty laugh . . . Eddie Jones, are you ready? . . .”
There were no tears. He had not known his father very long and he could not remember him too well, except how he laughed so much and brought home candy in his pockets, and played catch with him, and their walk . . . There were no tears, only a tightening in the chest, a thumping in the heart, and a pride, a great pride, because he had come to know and understand all of those things his father had talked about many years ago. And he wished, he wished so much, his father could know. He wanted to tell him now. He did not speak aloüd. His thoughts were not voiced . . .
“I thought of it many times, dad, when the time came, when we all had to think about it. But this once especially, it all seemed so terribly clear and true that I’ll never forget it. You see it was a big war and it covered the world and I was on a canal dike, a little canal I’d never even heard of. We’d been waiting for the attack all night. We knew it was going to come. And I really hadn’t been in it before. This was to be the first for me and I was wondering how I was going
to feel about it. What I would think of shooting down guys I never knew, about shooting down anybody, because I’m not the fighting kind, dad. I’d been a pacifist. Lots of us who fought and lots of the ones who died had been pacifists.
“I was lying there behind the machine gun and there was nothing to do but wait and look at the stars and the water and listen. I had all this night to think of it, waiting. And I thought of a lot of things, dad. I thought about how much so many would be missing if they couldn’t have that first girl and all the laughs and all the arguments and all the big plans and big dreams. I remembered what big Joe Krasna told me. He played centre with me on the basketball team in high school. He had two children and he was the first to enlist in the town.
“ ‘Look, Johnny,’ he said, ‘look at the nice home my folks have. A radio, a refrigerator, a car. And they came to Canada when they were already grown. They had nothing in the old country. And look at sis, she’s got a swell job. She was valedictorian, even if she was Polish, and she got a scholarship. And look at me. I played hockey with you and Gus Schmidt and Ray Spatola and nobody ever thought it was strange or funny. It was natural. Us working together to win games. And I married me an Irish girl. Ah, I can’t explain it very well, Johnny. I never was much for that kind of stuff. But that’s the way it is . . .’
“I thought of a lot of little kids running along the roads somewhere with airplanes zooming down to get at them. And I didn’t want that for my Eddie. I didn’t want Eddie or Ellen to ever have to run for any shelter or worry about our home being bombed and the sooner we got rid of that possibility the better for everybody—and when they came I wasn’t excited, dad. I was just quiet and I let her fly and I wasn’t thinking of the Nazis at all. I was thinking of Eddie and Ellen and mom and Joe and every bullet was one for them—and you. I got a lot of them before they got me. They got me in the leg, thank God, and I still limp a little but it will be better in a year or so. And any minute now . . .”
HE WAS standing there above his father’s grave when the first whistle sounded, the big factory whistle, its piercing blasts reverberating through the town and along the river, loud, shrill, exciting. And in that moment the smaller ones joined in with an accompaniment. And then
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A Home Like Ours
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the church bells, a solemn, beautiful counterpoint in all the wild crescendo of noise. And then the automobile horns, honking raucously. And all of the sounds, joined together, and all the riotous relief and joyous delight that there was peace at last rang from the happy town through the quiet cemetery.
He spoke aloud now for the first time.
“Well, they’re in Berlin, dad,” he said softly, the calmness with which he said the words belying the emotion with which he felt them. “It’s all over. They’ve got the crown jewels. They’re in Berlin, dad.”
He turned quickly, then, and started down the rise and walked along the winding road and out of the cemetery to his car. As he drove down the hill into town, the whistles, the bells, the horns, and the shouting still lifted a thunderous cacophony of sound to the skies. And suddenly all of his own quiet and solemnity vanished and there was only an overwhelming feeling of happiness in his heart. He pushed his own horn hard, wildly. Almost unconsciously his foot pressed down on the gas pedal as he reached the town, for hundreds were on the streets, shouting, cheering, waving, kissing and crying, and he was anxious to get home with Ellen and little Eddie, whom he always called Buster.
He wanted to pitch ball with Buster this afternoon.
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