When We Were Heroes 1.0


Dear Ezra and Lian,

My great-grandfather served in the trenches of WWI. I don’t know that much about his service or his experiences because he rarely if ever talked about it to his family. My mom told me that at the end of the war he was part of an honour guard for the King of Belgium. I have to think he did something to merit that privilege. I don’t know what it was.

I do know that he left as a young farmer to join the war and came back as a farmer. He married and raised two daughters. Later on, he retired from farming and became a church custodian. He never went to the Royal Canadian Legion. He only attended Remembrance Day memorials once a year. It’s like he left all the war behind him.

When WWII started, he was almost exactly my age now. As far as I know, he just kept on farming. He had a wife and two young daughters, so there were plenty of reasons for him not to volunteer to serve in the armed forces again. I wonder how difficult was it for him just to farm and stay silent about his military service. Was he tempted to hitch up again or were the memories too horrible to counsel the thought? I think he would be disappointed in me. Here I am with a blog and a Facebook account, spilling out all my secrets. I’m not the strong, silent type; at least not anymore.

When I wrote about eating spinach in East Germany and that I’m not a gun smuggler in India, there’s a lot I didn’t mention. One of those reasons is adrenaline. Once you get that rush of excitement, it’s really hard to forget. It is one reason B.A.S.E. jumpers keep taking huge risks until they get themselves killed. What do old soldiers do? Did my great-grandfather pull out his trunk of war mementos every month and relive the memories? Did he manage to forget it all while he milked cows and ploughed fields? I know I’m rapidly approaching my fork in the road. Should I close the door on my past and lock it shut? The next time somebody asks for help, can I even say “No”?

It all started when I was 16. I travelled to East Germany when it was very much still a communist country. Even though it was July 1989, a few months before the Berlin Wall was torn down, I couldn’t see the end of communism in any of the Eastern European countries. Passing from West to East Germany was like entering a prison. The entire border was lined with barbed wire and heavily armed guards. Many died every year trying to escape from the East to the West. The night before we crossed the border, I couldn’t sleep a wink. You see, the next day would be my first time smuggling across an international border.

Everyone on the train had their passports checked. Most foreigners had a quick check of their luggage. My luggage was full of illegal written material and a keyboard. They never opened up my luggage. Part way through the journey a group of Russian soldiers stopped at our seats to chat up the pretty Canadian girls in our group. One soldier sat beside me while the contraband material was under my feet. I tried to be as friendly as I could, but I was sweating badly. Thankfully, he wasn’t interested in me or my luggage. Our gifts made it to their destination and I was hooked, maybe forever. There was the chance I could have gone to jail in East Germany at the age of 16. More likely, that I would have just got kicked out of the country after some time in a detention centre. All the same, it was my first time leaving Canada. I hadn’t even been to the US at that time. It was a pretty big risk to take for a teenager from a farm in Southern Ontario.

Later on in that trip to East Germany (DDR), we were on the East side of Checkpoint Charlie. Someone in our group took a picture on their camera. Of course, that was against the rules. A policeman motioned for my friend to give him the camera. Instead, they started walking away and pretended not to hear. Very shortly, 9 young Canadians, including me, were running through the streets of East Berlin with a policeman chasing us. At first, I was scared out of mind. By the end, after the policeman gave up, we were all laughing. Every successful smuggling job ends in smiles and laughter. Whether it’s illegal books, money, medical or food supplies, there’s always so much joy when it reaches its final destination.

When the Berlin Wall fell a few months later, I felt like one of those pieces of concrete belonged to me. At least metaphysically, my small act of defiance in the face of tyrants and a cruel military, chipped some of the plaster off that wall; it snipped one strand of barbed wire on the border. When Germans celebrated and danced on the Wall, I celebrated with them. It was my victory too.

Of course, publicly writing this, sort of means it’s all over for me now. It only has worked so many times because nobody expected me or my friends to be smuggling something in. It feels weird to be packing away my smuggling skills. It seems a waste. Is this really it? I’m reluctantly closing the door. I’m embracing a new life. I’m starting a new chapter in my life. You two are very much part of that story.