An open letter to my great uncle on Remembrance Day

A Flatlander reader shares a letter he wrote to his late great uncle who fought in the First War.

Fifty years after the Great War ended, you were still wearing your uniform, at least part of it, every day of your life; I saw you. The long-sleeved pressed khaki shirt with arm garters to keep your cuffs up from the garden work, suspenders hanging, wool trousers carrying a crisp crease, square laced ¾ height black leather boots with a shine and often, the incongruent herringbone tweed newsboy cap. Incongruent because even as a little boy, I was sure that soldiers didn’t wear hats like that, but I suppose it was the one accommodation you made beyond the remainder of your attire to civilian life, as you would have no need for a helmet in Carlyle, Saskatchewan in the 1960s.

Ever present and always was your bent briar pipe, perpetually either gripped in your teeth and producing dense blue clouds or in your great large calloused hands receiving a furious reaming with some curious tool dedicated to the purpose and always in your pocket. You fashioned every possible type of construction; I remember a tiny grain elevator, with the burnt Eddy Matches thus sacrificed and little drops of Elmer’s Glue. You had all the different coloured pouches of flavours of Sail Pipe Tobacco, the green, the red and yellow, and you’d ask me, “Which colour should I smoke, little man?” and I always chose green because it smelled the best. And you’d chuckle, “Okay then, green it is!” I’d sit on the floor by your knee with my legs crossed, getting just a little dizzy.

When we arrived from Regina, a two-hour drive that took forever in the backseat of our white Ford Fairlane, me, my mom and dad and Grandma Jessie, your sister, in spring, summer or fall, you’d be sitting in a pressed back wooden kitchen chair at the foot of your steps in the shade of a gigantic lilac bush, so pungent in season, it overpowered even the pullings from your pipe. Just as sure, Aunt Lila was in the kitchen, baking some pie just for me. From home canned apples in spring, rhubarb from your garden (more sugar, please) and Saskatoons we picked in summer and pumpkin in the fall, with great heaps of thoroughly unpasteurized, dangerous, farm-fresh whipped cream. I was always curious and didn’t quite get it as a kid, was Aunt Lila named after the bush or was the bush named after her? It was very confusing. I called them ‘Lila trees’ for years.

Now our house was small, but your house was tiny. One bedroom for you and auntie, a cot on a porch where I slept with my dad, and a hide-a-bed in the wee living room for mom and grandma. With all the leaves of the table folded out, we crowded in and around at every holiday and during summer vacations, playing marathon matches of Canasta (hand and foot, of course) late into every night. I have no idea how Santa ever managed to sneak in. Then, after the last hand was played, we’d all cuddle up. And late, very late in the night, your screams would start.

There were two variations: “Get ready boys, get ready, they’re coming over,” and the worst, the most anguished call, “It’s gas, it’s gas, they’re gassing us boys…oh god”. I’d ask my dad, when I was maybe four or five, as young as I can remember, “What’s the matter with Uncle Lloyd?” A veteran of the Second War, he didn’t say much, just “bad dreams” and then he’d hug me tight. After a few years, I didn’t ask anymore. We’d listen while Aunt Lila calmed you, and my dad would always hold me close so I wouldn’t be afraid. These things were never mentioned in the light.

Grandma and the aunties would talk about the war sometimes. I asked them if it was bad, and they said, “Oh yes, but the flu (of the great 1918 pandemic) was much worse. You never knew if this day might be your last when you woke up.” Not much different from the war in some ways, I suppose. And I guess for those women; the flu was worse than the war because it was here, and that was over there somewhere. But they all stood by you; menfolk never wavered. And none of you men spoke of any of it. But Remembrance Day was always a huge deal. You had every poppy from the first year. They had poppies pinned in a row above the kitchen table.

Uncle Lloyd, you never really seemed to stop coughing. Now you might think, with all the smoking… but neither did Uncle Russell, who didn’t smoke, his cough was worse? My Grandpa Ernest died before I was born, coughing up blood at a picnic. His lung cancer was undiagnosed. He never stopped coughing, either, so I guess no one ever figured anything was wrong at the end. You all signed up, brothers in arms, for the war to end all wars together.

Our visits continued, the season in, season out, year after year. There were many more memories. I remember the long cold day in the duck blind, dad, me, you and Uncle Ralph. You cradled the gun in your arms like a child all day long. Just staring, so still, shooting at nothing. Sometimes there were nightmares, sometimes not. And then, one summer, everything changed between you and me.

I was probably about twelve, and the Vietnam war was in full fury, as were the anti-war protests. And I had become, even at that somewhat tender age, radicalized. All war was wrong. My hair was as long as my father would allow, and I was a full-on peacenik. So I confronted you one afternoon in the garden, under the ‘Lila’ bush. “How could you have fought in that war? How could anyone ever do that? What did it accomplish? They just went ahead twenty years later and had World War II. WHAT WAS THE POINT?” And I will never forget the look on your face, the way your body went stiff. There was a long silence; your lip was quivering. You coughed. You looked pale. I think your eyes were wet. And you just walked away, back into the house and Aunt Lila. I never saw you much after that.

In the summers, we would always visit Glenn Morris cemetery. Up the dusty gravel road, about a mile and a half north of town, in the lee of Moose Mountain, on the slopes where your family homesteaded, often driving out in your big blue ’57 Chevy Bel Air to visit where my grandpa and all the others were buried, and where you would all rest together one day. We’d rake and weed and tidy up. And you and Aunt Lila would linger over the graves of your two boys, Howard and Anson, who died very young of sickness that people didn’t die from anymore. I always figured you had loved me a little more because you had extra left over.

I’m so sorry, Uncle Lloyd, I didn’t understand. I was a kid. I was a fool.

Love, your great (not so great) nephew.

Darrell Horn

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