Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Museum of Terrible Beauty

No, I don’t have survivor guilt—I am grateful God has a purpose for me.

We were soldiers once… and young. Now, twice a week I work with an archivist. Approaching the Museum of the Regiments, in the cold spring morning air, I hear again quiet forlorn radio voices in the night. I smell machine oil and gunpowder. Stepping up to the door I crouch through swirls of dust and smoke and I enter the huge atrium—where all is open and clear. Far ahead and up above is a great portrait of our queen. She is so old! Back in my elementary school every classroom had a picture of her, with her smooth big young smile. The great painting surely was made when she was here to open the new gallery, back in the early 1990’s. The Queen Elizabeth II highway across the plains to Edmonton was named in her honor back then. I wonder what she would think of my spelling “honour” without the “u,” Yankee style, to match my new software spell-check. The world has gotten smaller since the years of flaming towns at midnight. 

Keith the commissionaire, at his big desk, once saw the queen when he was 17, as a member of the British army. He was a kid during the war, back when my father, born in Scotland, was over there with the Canadian army.

 As we talk a cheerful old oriental stranger shuffles in. He carries a polished branch as a walking stick, wearing grey sweat pants and the new-fangled plastic “crock” slip-on shoes. He wants to contribute his memories of the war; Alec, retired from the King’s Own Calgary Regiment, (Modern day cavalry troops, with battle tanks) goes and stands talking with him. I overhear Alec say that a retired reservist colonel of the Calgary Highlanders, a former CBC journalist, is recording oral histories, and that is whom the old veteran could eventually go see. But not today.

My main contact here is George, a manager, and a serving member of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. As a soldier he will be retiring earlier than any civilian his age—a retirement well earned! He asks if I am retired. I say, “Not yet, although I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked that…I used to be able to keep count.”

Along with the archivist I disappear down into places the public never goes. People, mostly men, pass back and forth. Not old, not World War II veterans. Some will wear golf shirts, T-shirts or blazers with the crest of their reservist regiments emblazoned proudly. How contented they are with their meaningful work. Here is an air-conditioned world, a safe world. No youthful bravado, no derisions. Alec, with a twinkle in his eye, doesn’t “swear like a trooper”—he doesn’t need to now. And Jimmy sleeps in his own bed again.

Back upstairs, on our way back out, waiting for our handi-bus, we chat with a happy man my dad’s age wearing a Dieppe pin. Now a days he cheerfully speaks to groups of school children, telling them he was a “guest of the fuehrer.” He laughs, feeling fortunate to be in such good health, still walking. My dear dad is not so fortunate; my brother is living with posttraumatic stress disorder. In my family, poor but honest, we all did our best. At last the handi-bus comes; the archivist and I get strapped in. And then I can relax, I can slump a little against my strap… and I grieve.

Sean Crawford
With malice towards none
Calgary 2013

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece Sean. Specially with Rememberance Day coming up.
    This is Brenda by the way. Sorry I haven't called but I had to move in July and my new place doesn't have a landline. I am using a borrowed cell phone with 50minutes a month on it. I will try to give you a call when I can.