First published in This Week, November 10, 1996.
I know a man, the father of a friend. I grew up knowing this man, but over many years my memory may have become distorted. I may get the story a little wrong, but its essence remains the same.
Ken came from the southern tip of Lake Manitoba, where little farms are tucked among hills, marsh and scraggly trees. He was a farm boy. Maybe he dreamed of far-away places, when he was a boy learning the three “Rs” in one of those little one-room schoolhouses with the Union Jack flying out front. Maybe he dreamed of sailing ships and flying aeroplanes. I don’t know. I’ve always guessed that he dreamed of being a good farmer, and nothing more or less.
In September, 1939, the world changed. This is not a fiction created by later historians. The world changed. The British Empire, the foundation of everything Ken learned as a prairie boy, was in very real danger—not of losing its global supremacy, but of actually being overrun. Bombs showered London just a few short months after the invasion of Poland.
Ken joined England’s Royal Air Force. If my memory is correct, his brother joined, too, and his cousin flew in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
These three Connell boys all flew in the big bombers. Ken flew in a Lancaster during the Nuremburg raid. He flew, I think, two tours of duty.
And then Ken came home from the war. He came home with a wife, Pat, who came from Prince Edward Island. Ken and Pat farmed, and then Ken became the manager of a grain elevator; he managed the POOL elevator in Minnedosa and gave me one of my first jobs. He was, and is, prominent in the United Church and the Royal Canadian Legion. He and Pat have done very much, in their quiet way, for the community of Minnedosa since moving there over 20 years ago.
They raised four children, three boys and a girl, all of whom have become fine adults. As Ken and Pat approached retirement they traveled more. They visited their son Kim, an RCMP officer in northern Alberta. They visited their old post-war stomping grounds in the Swan River Valley. Ken and Pat went on Ken’s first visit to England since the end of the Second World War. Ken took up woodworking, and built a basement workshop.
And now Ken and Pat are retired. From memory Ken builds models of the horse-drawn wagons and buckboards that carried the farm families of his youth. He and Pat remain committed to their community, and are involved in a whole spate of activities from golf to bowling.
If you visit Ken and Pat, perhaps you will be fortunate enough to be invited down to Ken’s workshop. To reach it you will pass through a rec room that is decorated in an unusual way. Warplanes still fly in the framed photographs. There is a beautiful frame that Ken made to hold medals, the medals he was given for surrendering his life to the roulette of war. There is a large model of a Lancaster bomber, painted to exactly duplicate the plane that brought Ken back from death time and time again.
Ken does not dwell of his memories of the Second World War; or, if he does, he’s done a marvelous job of hiding it. I only heard Ken talk at length about the war once. We were at the big Commonwealth Air Training Plan reunion in Winnipeg. Douglas Bader and Adolf Galland were there, and so were Ken, his brother and cousin. There was no talk of the horrors of war. I stood there like a puppy, listening while they reminisced about being on leave in bomb-ruined London. About the time Ken bailed out, lost his flight boots and landed in a cow pie. They talked about funny times, and about the people that they remembered.
For them, I think, there was no reason to talk of things so horrible that no person should ever be witness to them. Their memories of gunfire, of anti-aircraft and torn-apart warplanes, have become fond memories of the boys who didn’t come home.
I did not know any of the boys who didn’t come home. They were gone, some of them, 20 years before my birth. I did, however, know many of those who came home. Ken came home. That is what I remember on Remembrance Day. Not the fallen, but those who lived in the place of fallen friends. It makes a war that raged years before my birth a personal and terrible thing.
People like Ken, people of my father’s generation, showed me from the very beginning how to value my home and country. If I ever face my own September, 1939, I will still remember.