Last night Heather and I went to “The larks, still bravely singing” presented by the Toronto Choral Society. It was a Remembrance Day tribute to those who served in World War II. Our friend Andrea is in the choir and we follow her around devotedly. The event was only an hour long and held at a high school up the street from our home. So we met for a beer after work, grabbed a handful of nuts because dinner would be late, and headed north a few blocks to Riverdale High.
Up in the balcony, as seats were filling up and the choir was arranging themselves on the stage, I turned to Heather and said: “Don’t you think we’re glorifying war, coming to this?”
“Tough question, isn’t it,” she said. “But aren’t you glad we beat the Nazis?”
Suddenly Winston Churchill filled the screen in front of us saying ‘fight’ a lot and the choir began to sing. I remembered reciting “In Flanders Field” at Our Lady of Sorrows school when I was seven, pleased my mother practiced it with me that morning over breakfast so I wouldn’t mess it up. I remembered wondering: will there be other poems in my life? There were. Then I remembered Vera Lynn’s “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and thinking about how the white cliffs of Scarborough here in Toronto always bring this song to mind, leaving me humming it the rest of the day.
But mostly what touched deep last night at this event was the recitation of a story and I don’t even know who wrote it–could have been Farley Mowat but it also had a Hemingway feel to it.
Somewhere in France, the story went, at the site of a recent battle, a very young, freshly wounded German soldier faintly called out to a very young allied soldier in stumbling English. “Wassar? Do you have wassar, please…” The Canadian or American man had been escaping when he heard this whisper from across the room. “Wassar, please.”
The man stopped, turned, and spoke to the wounded German. “Sorry mate, no water just whiskey, and that won’t do you any good.” Then he crossed the room, crouched by the youth and held the bottle to his lips. After a moment, he took the bottle back and swallowed deeply himself.
“So together we finished the bottle, got drunk together, and half an hour later the fellow died.”
Two young men. Pissed drunk in a roomful of death.
I looked around the auditorium of this Toronto high school and thought about the lives lost during both wars; students gathering in this room to mourn together. I thought about my 18-year-old son, his Facebook page annoyingly filled with tales of boozing it up in Montreal, the innocence of it all. I thought about his good friend Lucas, attending his first year at university in Dresden, a city once destroyed by war. Lucas’s beautiful face and accented voice. He lived with us in Toronto for three months a few years ago, part of a student exchange with Germany.
The concert ended. The lights went on. Andrea and the rest of the choir exited the stage. Heather and I walked soberly home.