IT WAS a short note, one of those spur-of-the-moment letters young people in love write at the least possible excuse. She had been out in the park, giving the dog a run, and Scottie had splashed through the fallen leaves as if he were swimming. She enclosed a maple leaf.
All the glory of a Canadian autumn was in that maple leaf. The burning gold, the brilliant red, the deep greenish tones blended in a riot of color. It was not very large; it fitted nicely into my wallet. By some miracle the dried leaf had not been crushed by the tons of mail bridging the Atlantic. A collector might not have prized it, for it was not perfect, but to me it symbolized Canada— home at its bast.
As if by magic that bright leaf brought back those days before the war drums throbbed. Autumn in Canada—days of sunny, colorful beauty. Summer is over: the days of swimming, picnics, starlight dancing in lakeside roadhouses, long drives in open cars, golf under a hot sun were ended. The winter lay ahead: log fires in country
cottages; brisk, frosty walks in the park; the glaring ribbon of sunshine reflected by the ski trail; Christmas presents and parties.
Just looking at that maple leaf thrilled me. It was the most exhilarating experience of the war as far as I was concerned. And I’d had some varied experiences ever since losing sight of Halifax one November evening. But not a thrill like this.
I wasn’t thrilled during the days of the Battle of Britain, when a handful of youngsters were knocking the Luftwaffe out of the sky. Nor was I thrilled when the ship on which I was travelling to the Mediterranean, for the invasion of Sicily, was bombed far out at sea. Nor was it thrilling during those early days on the Normandy beach, or when we cracked the West Wall and started up the long road to Berlin.
Those were exciting times, but to my mind a thrill should contain some measure of pleasure, and there is certainly no fun in being blitzed, bombed or blown up. You get the tingle up and down your spine, but the reaction is not thrilling. In fact, if never again I get that peculiar tautness of the stomach, that icy clutch at my heart, the feeling that I am unable to breathe, then I will not be sorry in the least. That is not thrilling: that’s just being plain, ordinary scared.
MY MAPLE LEAF faded slightly as the months rolled into years, but instead of losing its peculiar power it did double duty. Depending on my mood, by looking at my talisman I could either recall the days before the war or peer into the future, indulging in the most fanciful of daydreams. I intended to keep it always, for as well as bringing back the past it seemed to hold a definite promise regarding the future.
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When the bombs were crashing on the homes of Britain my maple leaf was a sure reminder that as the seasons change, so do the tides of war, and that we would not always be on the receiving end of terror and destruction. In the evil-smelling summer heat of Algiers that maple leaf brought a breath of the pure, cool air of a Canadian wood. My little bit of Canada went with me everywhere. I made sure it was in my wallet when I boarded a boat for Normandy.
It was after our break-through at Caen that Jimmy joined the unit. We were chasing the Hun back over the Seine, and had got into a nasty series of scraps in the long, wooded, loops of the river. Jimmy was a nice, cleanlooking youngster from the Ottawa Valley and still slightly homesick, but are wasn’t much time to bother about t at that stage of the game.
'he odds were all in his favor when, joined us, for the battalion was at lest for a couple of days to pull itself together. In that type of fighting a reinforcement either becomes a veteran fast, or, if he is lucky, is only wounded. Jimmy had all the earmarks of a possible veteran, for the battle training in England was good, and all the other members of my platoon were old hands by now, and they passed on a lot of good tips to the youngster.
As luck would have it, he bought it that night. Those big mortars Jerry was using were accurate and deadly, and Jimmy didn’t quite make his slit trench in time. By the time 1 had
crawled over to him, the corporal had made him as comfortable as possible, although there wasn’t much you could do. Mortar bombs really play for keeps, and Jimmy had caught a basketful.
Jimmy was tough, though; he was still conscious when I got to him. He kept mumbling something, and I bent low to hear it.
“Home, home, home,” he kept repeating.
“Yes, Jimmy,” I said, trying to keep my voice from cracking. “Sure, kid, you’re going home. Why, you’re practically back in the Valley right now.”
Acting pn some sudden inspiration I snatched out my wallet and grabbed my maple leaf.
“Here you are, Jimmy,” I said. “Look! A maple leaf! That’s a sure sign you’re going home.” I tried to make my voice sound as if I really believed it.
A couple of st retcher-hearers crawled up and took Him away. His hand still held my maple leaf. The corporal gave me a queer look, mumbled something like, “See you later, sir,” and faded into the night. I felt pretty low, for you hate to lie to a dying man, even when you have the excuse of trying to make him happy at the end.
It, was while we were clearing out the Breskens Pocket in the mud and rain of Holland that autumn that another letter came. It was a short letter. It told about miracles of surgery and nursing and care. But between its folds lay something I know meant even more.
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