On Sunday, March 19, 1961, my grandfather was one day away from death in the small town of St. Mary’s Ontario in his family home on the main street of town. He did not want to live on the terms on which he then understood his life.
Robert A Stapleton was 84 years old. He had suffered circulatory problems most of his adult life along with painful arthritis. One of his legs had been amputated above the knee a couple of years earlier and his remaining leg had been recommended for amputation by doctors. He had refused and life-ending gangrene had become a very real possibility in that early spring.
I was 10 years old at the time and I had been a part of many recent family gatherings on weekends in my father’s home town. I was the kid that my grandfather sent out for ‘smokes’ at the local variety store. We had a pact where he slipped me the cash and the store proprietor winked. He had been told not to sell cigarettes to my grandfather and especially to me. This caused the whole operation to go underground.
One of my grandfather’s simple pleasures in early 1961 was to wait until everyone had left the room and then to light up, striking an Eddy’s wooden match on the side of a metal lamp. When the smell of smoke made its way into the kitchen, my grandmother and assorted relatives would rush to the living room to find out how he had acquired his Black Cat corks in the blue and yellow packages. He made up a cock and bull story but I remained ‘suspect number one’ in the ongoing ruse. I thought that if he wasn’t going to tell, neither would I.
He died in hospital in the early hours of March 20, 1961.
Robert Stapleton was 37 years old when World War I broke out. He was too old to enlist but he put his hands on some very primitive dye and managed to turn his hair jet black. He lied about his age attesting to just under the age limit for service. He was off to war.
During his time in battle, he was fortunate enough to escape death but he was shot in both his legs and as a result, had shrapnel that could not be easily removed at the time. Despite medical attention, it was never removed. He lived with the pain for 45 years.
Mr. Stapleton met his future wife in England towards the end of the war and moved with her back to St. Mary’s where he started a second family in 1918. My father, Allan Stapleton was born on January 5, 1920. He served in World War II from 1939-1945 in England, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium and Holland. He was not injured badly there. He is now 96 at the time of this writing.
Longevity is common in the Stapleton family when something does not go amiss. My great-great great grandmother, Dorothy Heard Stapleton passed away at age 94 in the 1880’s at a time when the average age of death was under age 50. Her husband Arther, born in 1790, and who came to Canada in 1832, lived to age 83. A number of great uncles and aunts lived well into their 90’s.
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Following the 70th anniversary of the Canadian campaign to liberate Holland in 1945, there was a microscopic snippet of speculation as to whether there would be a 75th anniversary with Canadian veterans riding ‘period’ jeeps through the streets of Apeldoorn in 2020. That speculation is now growing, one year after the 70th.
My take on the subject is that the 75th will take place and it will be well-attended by Canadian veterans. This is a complete reversal of my thinking after the 60th anniversary. Here is what I wrote in 2004 in southern Sicily:
“The final event at Ispica drew to a close and the veterans looked up, some doing so uneasily. For each veteran at a fortieth or fiftieth reunion knows that there is a possibility that there can be one more—but at the sixtieth, they know that the arithmetic of life expectancy and major events punctuated by a decade in between will mean that this may truly be their last. Not because some won’t be well enough to do it once more, but because they know that their numbers will dwindle so significantly that it cannot be the same.”
After the 60th, the 70th seemed impossible but I was wrong. And now I know why I got it wrong.
First, WWII was a very popular war and WWI wasn’t. There are many tales of veterans returning home to Canada in 1918 to great hostility. Hearing that a man was a veteran, some landowners would not sell property to a veteran. This takes a toll. We also know that from returning US vets from Vietnam.
Second, I reasoned that there were no large 75th reunions of Canadians who served in WWI.
But I did not understand how different the medical care my father received was compared to the care my grandfather received. For 45 long years, Robert lived with shrapnel that could not be removed without invasive surgery that had low success rates. Today, lasers would make that surgery a snap. Today, he wouldn’t even be admitted into hospital. It would be an outpatient procedure with few complications and a speedy and successful recovery.
I did not understand how important bypass surgery and two carotid artery surgeries could be for my father. Neither of these surgeries would have been available to my grandfather. But it is not just the fact that they were now available. It is also that these surgeries are minimally invasive compared to decades ago and are now routinely performed on older people. Bypass surgery for an octogenarian was unheard of 50 years ago.
I remember the doctor telling me not to be nervous when my father was having his bypass. He said that machines were performing all his bodily functions. He said “He couldn’t die if he wanted to”.
Then there’s the smoking. I did not realize until meeting the veterans in 2015 in Holland that there were virtually no smokers. And those that did smoke had all quit in the 1940’s.
And finally, there is a new appreciation for what our veterans accomplished. Self-esteem is very important to older people as they begin to fail both mentally and physically. Returning to Holland is just the tonic that the doctor ordered. There is not a visitor or veteran that could fail to understand the loyal and steadfast high regard in which Canadian veterans are held.
Many Canadian veterans of the liberation of Holland who have made it this far, lungs free of smoke, medically corrected and self-esteem intact, will make it to the 75th.
Forget that they all will be in their 90’s and 100’s.
Veterans’ Affairs should be starting to plan now.
John Stapleton accompanied his father as caregiver to the 60th and 70th anniversary celebrations in Sicily and Italy in 2004 and 2014 and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands in 2015