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Sunday, 11 November 2012

Why we remember

One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I do not remember my maternal grandfather. There are photo's of me being bounced on his knee as a baby, but I'd love to have known him as an adult, or at least a child old enough to have known him.

My grandfather served in World War 2, in the Seaforth Highlanders. He went through Europe and came back home and never set foot in a church again apart from weddings and funerals. For a presbyterian Scot raised in the earlier years of the century, that's huge, and startling. My mom said he would never talk much about the war and what happened, but he'd mentioned seeing a camp - I'm not sure if he was seconded to a separate regiment involved in liberating one, or if he was captured and interred, as a number of the Highlanders were - and what he saw there destroyed his belief in any kind of benevolent god. The war broke his faith, but from what I've been told it couldn't change his basic decency and belief in doing the right thing.

My great uncle on the paternal side was involved in those hellish beach landings in Normandy. He was an absolute character in daily life, and thought nothing of an hour-long walk. He also loved his whiskey and headed up to his local club almost daily. He was a short man, but dynamic - he went through life with an impish twinkle in his eye and the willingness to laugh at almost anything. And at night he'd scream.
I stayed with him the first time I came out to the UK, and hearing those noises was heart-breaking. The first night, I thought someone had gotten into the house and was attacking him. When I pushed open the bedroom door (armed with a poker, of course), he was weeping in his sleep.

I went back to bed and had a little cry myself. In the morning, he asked me if I'd slept all right, and mentioned that he sometimes got "a little restless". He looked horribly embarrassed. I made us both a cup of tea, and lied to him. Slept like a brick, I said, and watched the relief flood his eyes.
Then I visited his daughter and found out what had happened - her dad had suffered nightmares since he came back from the war.
That's one lie I have never regretted, and never will.

Because of men like my grandfather and uncle, Hitler was stopped. Because of people like them, we have the freedom to walk the streets of our countries without wondering if the state will kick our door in and drag us to hell because of our ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. Despite all the faults of Western countries - and they are myriad - we can state our disagreement with a politician without facing a firing squad.

So this is why we remember the men and women who serve - and often die - on our behalf. They fought, and still fight, and whether you believe in the reason they fight or not, they serve their countries.
Whether they come back physically whole or not, none of them come back unscathed; the scar tissue on hearts and minds still twists and contracts. It still hurts, even when you are 70 and winking at life.

They held a gun, so I do not have to.
They faced horror, so I didn't see it's face.
They suffered the nightmares so that I can sleep in a safe bed.

Thank you.