Having grown up at the right hand of someone who served for this country in World War II, I’ve never not considered wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day.
Typically, if I’ve been spotted without this time of year, it’s because my ham hands were unable to affix the adornment in such a way where it would stay secure. Some years, I’ve lost as many as four poppies. In 2021 I’m still one for one as of this writing.
Don and his brother Dean Ostrander left the family farm just south of Bloomfield with West Lake shimmering in the distance and signed up for active service some time in early 1941, hoping to go beat ‘Jerry’ back from the western reaches of Europe, arm-in-arm all the way.
If the plan was to stick close to one another as much as possible, those hopes were dashed rather quickly. Great Uncle Dean showed tremendous capacity for understanding ailerons and flaps, drag, lift and downforce and was soon being trained to train other pilots through the British Commonwealth Air Training Program.
The posting was ironic. If Don was worried of his brother would find harm in the skies over France or Germany, those feelings were assuaged as Dean spent nearly all of his time serving in Canada. My grandfather would find other ways to serve the Allied effort. He drove a motorcycle as a dispatch rider for a while and eventually linked up with a group serving a Spitfire squadron based out of Lincolnshire, England.
He landed with that group shortly after D-Day and his favourite part of serving in WWII came on a beach in Normandy where Sir Winston Churchill inspected the No. 411 squadron D-Day plus 6. The work was difficult, continuous and terrifying and would require long hours of taking apart and rebuilding Spitfires, driving fuel trucks and manning air defence guns for when, as he put it in his diary, “Jerry came over” with loads of anti-personal bombs.
My grandfather told of times where his hands would be soaked in the fluid they cleaned the fighters with as he would spend all night with a rag and this ether-like substance to make sure the Spitfires were gleaming as nice as the day they rolled off the assembly line at Castle Bromwhich. As the Allies moved inland towards Holland and Belgium in the early months of 1945, these portable aerodromes would move and be relocated sometimes on a daily basis.
Pulling up the mesh runways, packing up tents and portable hangers and moving forward, field-by-field, inching closer to Germany and VE-Day might sound mundane even in a theatre of war but I recall a story of a confused driver and a trip that nearly ended up well over the line and deep into German-held territory. Thankfully for my grandfather and his comrades, this erroneous foray came without incident and the squad was soon back into the relative safety of the Allied side of the line.
While the sound of an approaching Stuka bomber might have given the soldiers in his 127 Spitfire Wing an idea of what was about to happen next, there was nothing in their collective experiences to that point in the war that could prepare them for the horrors of Bergen-Belsen and the mental receipt of supporting liberation efforts there.
So I wear the poppy in remembrance of the service of young Canadians of all generations like my grandfather and my great uncle who sacrificed their youth to fight against tyranny and fanatical fascism that threatened Europe and the free world, returning home with physical ailments and scars along with a head full of horrific suppressed memories.
I also wear it as a thank you to today’s veterans and those serving Canada at home and abroad.
I don’t wear it as some showy jingoistic acid test as to proclaim how patriotic I am which, unfortunately, has co-opted the meaning of today by some.
After all, Canada’s veterans fought for the very freedom not to wear a poppy on this day if you so choose.
I choose to remember in my own way and I hope you do as well.