In 1975, after finishing the first year of a doctoral program I would fail to complete, I visited friends in Groningen, Holland, in the first week of May. I had only the vaguest idea that I had happened upon an important 30th anniversary. I had arrived in the days leading up to VE-Day (Victory in Europe Day).
My father had served in Italy in the Second World War. He had shipped out of Livorno to Marseille in early 1945 to join the reunification of the Canadian forces in Holland in the early spring of that year. Like so many fathers and sons in the mid-1970s, we had not talked all that much about the war. Remembrance Day ceremonies were in decline. It did not seem that important.
I trudged out of the train station in Groningen carrying a massive blue backpack with a small Canadian flag sewn on the back flap. The next day, I was sitting with my friends in a small restaurant, talking loudly in English, my backpack parked against a wall. When I was ready to pay, I sauntered up to the cash register, where the middle-aged proprietress had a very odd smile on her face. She asked if I was Canadian. I was, I said.
To my astonishment, she shook my hand vigorously and placed her hand over the cash register. There would be no charge for breakfast. I protested but lost the argument, leaving with crumpled guilders still in my hand.
Fast-forward almost 30 years to Italy – late October, 2004. My father Al, age 84, and I are there to take part in the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Italian campaign.
Italy is a very different place, viewed through the eyes of a Canadian veteran. So many of the places that the veterans could never travel to safely in wartime, they were seeing now for the first time. Rimini, Cesena, Campobasso. They drove a hundred miles into Rome unimpeded, as if they were American Generals. The senses filled as they traveled in minutes the distances that took months in wartime. No land mines, no periccolo del morte this time around.
Returning to the places of battle, some moments, meant to be profound, were empty because memory had faded. But other moments unlocked the past: standing on the promontory at Pontecorvo, looking down on the Liri River, I finally experienced why Monte Cassino was so furiously defended. At Agira, we found ourselves in a place completely given over to the commemoration of Canadian war service – perhaps one of only two outside Canada, the first being Vimy. This harsh piece of ground, with Etna belching smoke and ash in the distance, is the sole Italian Campaign cemetery where only Canadians are buried.
The veterans are old enough that they seem to constantly tune in and out. Yet they could suddenly stand for minutes on end, intensely focused on a vacant field, until memories of the impossible horrors that took place on that patch of ground burst forth. At the Moro River, I saw a frail man move his chair from the shade of a tent into the heat of a field of gravestones and olive trees, to be with his buddies as he heard the speeches of tribute. At dinner, they repeated their stories – the famous Christmas dinner at Ortona, the unheard-of seven-day pass to visit Rome, the relief of escaping Russi or Cesena in one piece.
As we left the walled city of Cesena, a personal ceremony was underway. A very elderly couple had somehow rigged a small gas generator to an ancient turntable on the hood of their car, where a tinny-sounding 78 rpm record was spinning crazily. O Canada, the ancient orchestra played. The couple stood at attention, saying, “God bless you,” until the last of the Canadians passed by. I know, because I could not take my eyes off of them.
At Ispica, the veterans completed their pilgrimage with a twenty-five yard walk from the cemetery to the beach. There they dipped their fingers in the salty waves, marvelling at the shallowness of the water and suspiciously regarding the sand bars, so similar to those that kept the landing craft dangerously far at sea in the warm pre-dawn darkness of July 10, 1943. Perhaps they also thought of the day they left Italy 60 years before, on their way to unite with Canadian forces in Belgium and Holland.
It is Canada Day in Ortona, half-way up the boot of Italy on the Adriatic coast. Canadian flags are in every window. Although planned to the last detail, the event has an air of spontaneity. A nun guides small children in uniforms, waving Italian and Canadian flags or holding helium balloons with messages of hope. There are Italian and Canadian armed forces personnel, Mounties, dignitaries and attaches, caregivers and nurses, reserves and police, sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters, friends.
Elderly Italians clutch sepia photographs in one hand and reach out with the other to shake the hands of the veterans – the somewhat fewer than 100 older men and women still strong enough to be here.
Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and her entourage are a little late arriving. I venture off the square to buy some bottled water and peanuts. The old gentleman at the cash in the tiny shop looks up through his impossibly thick glasses at the Canadian flag in my lapel and the poppy. He places his hand over the cash register, with the same odd smile I had seen only once before, 30 years before, in Holland. He is still smiling as I leave.