Twenty eight Canadians returned to Italy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Italian campaign that took place during World War II from July 1943 to April 1945.
They ranged in age from their later eighties to their mid-nineties.
They were in the minority of the living well enough to go.
They were a remarkable group and the Canadian government has taken great care to ensure that we don’t lose track of them in the way we lost track of Canadian veterans of the Great War. In that case, it seems as if they were suddenly gone.
But what do we really know about this group of veterans who travelled to Italy from November 22 to November 30th as part of the official delegation?
What does the twenty seven men and one woman share outside of their common experience of war and extraordinary longevity?
Do they have other things in common?
As one of the caregivers on the journey, I decided to find out.
First there is the obvious. Just to have made it to Italy, it means that they were screened to go overseas in the first instance. They had no obvious impairments or disabilities at the time.
Secondly, all were volunteers and that alone makes a big difference. It was their choice to sign up and that says a lot about willingness and bravery especially as it relates to one’s country. Nine of the 28 entered the invasion of Sicily while 19 others joined the campaign in Italy.
The third easy point is that all of them were chosen to be part of the expeditionary forces to go into Sicily and Italy. In other words, there was another winnowing process that saw many soldiers screened out during the basic training that largely took place in the UK.
Two other important points regarding longevity were apparent. I did not observe any smokers among the group and many noted that they had never smoked. Others mentioned that they had given it up often decades earlier.
In addition, all drank in moderation or did not drink alcohol at all. Some admitted to being alcoholics but in those cases, they had beaten the addiction long ago.
But do those five characteristics explain what binds these 28 veterans together as robust and long survivors of a brutal campaign they experienced as young people mostly in their late teens and early twenties?
Not by a long shot!
Over those remarkable eleven days that we spent together, many of the caregivers and staff discovered a whole set of other characteristics of which anyone seeking a long life may wish to take heed. Here they are in no particular order:
A Positive Outlook
For these 27 men and one lady, the glass was perpetually half-full. They all looked at events for the good you could take from them. It was hard to pull a negative thought from any of them. Sure, some have health difficulties and various barriers but in each of their minds, the barrier was made to be surmounted.
An absence of anger
Anyone who spends a considerable amount of time with the very elderly knows that they can be prone to anger. Sometimes it can be sudden.
But with these 27 gentlemen and one woman, I don’t think any of us saw a single outward display of upset or anger. I talked to a few of them who said sometimes you have to work at not being angry but they suggested that anger was never worth it. Anger was seen as a weakness – something that gets in the way.
An orientation towards others – others always first
Among the very elderly, it is often the case that they can shut out the outside world and only think about themselves. That was not true of our 28 veterans. On many occasions, I watched them survey the room to see if there was anyone who needed anything. A coat or hat on the floor…someone appearing to look for something… would quickly attract the attention of one or more of the 28.
“Did you lose something?” or “Your hat was on the floor. Here it is.”
A strong sense of self-control
On a number of occasions, we heard the 28 talking about the world of yesteryear and the world of today. They saw how weather and events could affect timetables.
We were late to Cesena. The venue was shortened. The skies were black. The rain fell. A chill was in the air. Was this a problem? Did anyone say a word?
No! In their minds, things not going to plan is always part of the plan, because things don’t necessarily go to plan. It takes a modern mentality to be frustrated by this state of affairs.
You have to keep your own counsel. Listen closely. Things will work out.
Go with the flow. We will get there.
Of all those who worried about things going to plan, the 28 would not be counted among them. They knew about adapting.
The 28 veterans were uniformly proud throughout the commemoration. Proud of their country. Proud of their regiments and associations. Proud of coming back. Proud of their children and families.
Pride is always countered with humility. And there was always two parts of humility to go with every measure of pride.
The 28 veterans of the Italian campaign exercised in old age what many cannot do at a younger age. They exercised discretion; what to say and when to say it. But more than anything, they believe in discretion and the importance of saying the right thing at the right time and to avoid indiscretion.
Many at a younger age do not value discretion. They say what they mean and mean what they say. No BS; no matter how it may hurt or how it may upset. But the 28 understood discretion and they all had it down to a fine science.
And finally, a couple of funny things. One is a great sense of humour. They all had it. All their war stories came with great bursts of laughter describing the impossible, the absurd and the nuts.
Liberty (driver’s licenses & political parties)
The fact remains that in their 90’s, most of them continue to hold a valid driver’s license and many still drive. Many have uncorrected vision – still – after all these decades. That puts them at the top of some sort of strange elite that their younger caregivers – sons – daughters – grandchildren and wives have no idea.
Few belonged to political parties preferring to vote for their own man (or woman) caring strongly for the liberty to choose the man or woman or their choice.
“And so this is Christmas……………………..
………..and what have you done?”
Nothing much… Just a meditation for the 28 brave and smiling Canadian souls that graced Italian soil for a brief moment at the end of November 2014.
Caregiver to Allan Edwin Stapleton (age 94)
1st Canadian Division
Royal Canadian Corps of Signals
November 21, 2014 – December 1, 2014