When I was little, he sat me on his knee and recited Master McGraw. I grew up listening to BBC news with him. He always listened to news from the Old Country. He taught me cribbage and, in the evenings, he always had time to play two or three games with me, always sharing strategy with me. He and my grandmother taught me to play bridge early and many an evening, we played three handed bridge.
Sometimes, he and my great uncle, took me to the country with them when they went to hunt grouse. It was then that I saw why my grandfather had been considered a great shot. He bagged grouse at distances I would have thought impossible. He took his shooting skill to France in 1915 and was both a sniper and machine gunner. Because of his ability with a machine gun, he was asked to be a gunner on an airplane. He declined. He said that tail gunner’s lives were measured in minutes.
He seldom talked about his years in the trenches but I know he thought about them for something about the war would appear on the radio or TV, or in the newspaper, and he’d sit, silent, his face a picture of sadness. His only outburst about the Great War was when my grandmother once made a disparaging remark about German soldiers and he fiercely defended them. They were, he said, incredibly brave and no civilian had any right to criticize them. Once, when I was about ten, I asked him if he killed anyone in the war and he said, “Thousands. We used to lay down an enfilade and no one could get through it.” And then would say no more.
One time he told me that a new recruit had joined them to replace someone who had been killed. He was a farm boy from Saskatchewan. He was nervous and kept poking his head over the top of the trench to see what was happening. He was warned to stop doing it. He didn’t stop. He poked his head up one time too many and a sniper shot him. He was dead in less than a day after coming into the trenches.
He also told me that there were so many rats in the trenches and no man’s land, feeding on the remains of the dead, that the soldiers would put out a bit of food and when they came to get the food, the soldiers would try to bayonet them. The soldiers hated the rats and hated the thought that the rats, at some point, might feast on what was left of them after an attack.
He and others in his troop were so exhausted that they would fall asleep during a bombardment with heavy artillery firing, bombs falling. They slept until they were called into battle.
He immigrated to Winnipeg when he was young because he had three sisters already there. I asked him once why he left Ireland and he said, “I got tired of having to carry a pistol in my pocket.” He came from Northern Ireland and was, you could say, Protestant, but only because you couldn’t say he was Catholic. I never knew him to go to church. If he’d had any faith in God, he’d lost it in the trenches.
He came back in a hospital ship. He’d been wounded by shrapnel and the wound had infected. There were no antibiotics in those days. It took a year before he was free of the infection. He also had been gassed before he’d been wounded. His lungs were burnt but that wasn’t enough to be sent back to Canada. A couple of weeks leave and it was back into the mud. The rest of his life he had trouble breathing. In cold weather in Winnipeg, riding his bike, he sometimes ended up leaving the bike and crawling through the snow as he gasped for air. Where, I wondered, where these despicable women who handed out white feathers to shame young men who had not volunteered to go to France and die in the trenches. None of them stood on street corners and handed out money to help my grandfather or any of the other soldiers who came back from Europe wounded in body or mind.
He had joined the army out of loyalty to England, Northern Ireland, and Canada. He went to fight the good war. During the war, he discovered that loyalty and idealism only went one way. He and his compatriots were cannon fodder, their lives not even worth considering, their family’s pain of no concern. He said that at one point they were down to six bullets per soldier while the officers were served Christmas dinners with all that went with a traditional dinner. My grandfather and his buddies ate beef out of a tin and strawberry jam. It is always this way. When the upper political class wants to wage war, they appeal to patriotism and when that doesn’t work, to threats.
They shame you with white feathers and public campaigns accusing you of being a coward for not allowing yourself to be maimed or killed for their cause. When the war is over, you are now a nuisance, an unwanted expense that might mean taxes have to be raised. Once the war is over, the only good soldier is a dead soldier. They are in their graves and can be forgotten except when politicians want photo ops.
He’d been quite a good boxer and he taught me how to box and gave me two pairs of boxing gloves. Because of that, I and my friends set up rings in the yard during the summer and sparred.
He never made much money working as a laborer for the railway. He and my grandmother never owned a car. He rode a bike to work. My grandmother knitted, sewed, grew a large garden, preserved.
They let me stay free when I went to university. They found me a summer job through one of my grandfather’s brothers-in-law. After I got married and needed a car because of my job, they loaned me the money so I wouldn’t have to pay interest. My grandfather hated the banks and the paying of interest because after he’d come back from the war and married my grandmother, they had bought a house and when the Depression began, he had his wages cut so he couldn’t keep up the payments and the bank foreclosed. As always, the government, no longer needing men for cannon fodder, abandoned the soldiers who had risked their lives to defend their country.
He was, without doubt, the most honest person I’ve ever known. Although he hated banks with a passion, when he once was given twenty dollars too much when he cashed a cheque, he turned around and went back into the bank to return the overpayment. I learned that type of integrity from him. He’d take no dishonest dollar from anyone.
I also learned from observing him that it is a lie when people say someone is dishonest because he is poor. Many people would have thought my grandfather poor. The people I’ve known who have been thieves have been the well-to-do, the rich, the people who feel entitled to take what doesn’t belong to them.
He lost two sons when they were very young. That left my mother as his only child. She was the centre of his universe and, through that, I and my brother were part of that world. His son-in-law, although a very hard worker, when he was starting out had no money and no one to borrow from to start his fishing business and sometimes there wasn’t much money in our house. My grandfather never objected when my grandmother paid for a sewing machine or a washing machine for my mother. Or provided me and my brother with clothes. Their home was always our home. A trip to Winnipeg for shopping always ended up at their supper table.
He was badly scarred by the Depression. He lived in fear it would return. It colored his whole life. He only had a few years of education and he thought that I would be best off if I would get a job with a large company and stay there the rest of my life, amassing seniority so when the next Great Depression came I’d have the most security. He was fighting the last economic war. The future betrays us all. Yet, he supported my going to university, supported my getting a graduate degree.
He was seventy-four, the same age I am now, when he died in the Gimli hospital of a heart attack. There were no stents or bypass operations then. His last words to my father were “Dempsey, I’m done this time.”
We buried him in the graveyard of a small town in Manitoba, a long way from the farm in Ireland where he grew up. I thought, at the time, he should have been cremated and his ashes sent back to Ireland to be buried in the family graveyard but then I realized, he’d fought for Canada, he’d made his living in Canada, buried two children in Canada, and even though once a year, he put on his sash and marched in the Orangemen’s parade and went to their picnic, it was just a day’s nostalgia from years past. It was no more meaningful than when my father’s people celebrate their Icelandic Viking heritage. None of them actually want to go back to being Viking pirates. When the day was over, my grandfather put the sash back into its box. He wasn’t interested in participating in the Troubles. He carried no pistol in his pocket.
His heart was in Winnipeg, in the Legion with the other old soldiers, at the bingo table, in his overstuffed chair beside the radio, across from me at the card table, at the Christmas dinner at my parents’ house.