War. War Never Changes.
This morning I'm watching the Vimy coverage on TV. The Battle of Vimy Ridge, an event that happened 100 years ago. I sit here with tears in my eyes and am not sure why. Is it for my great-grand father that fought there? I can't even remember him. Is it for his brother who died just before the war ended? I shed tears for him at his grave in northern France. Is it for my grandfather who isn't here to see the commemoration? Maybe. Is it knowing that 100 years later that things haven't changed all that much? Sure, we have antibiotics and the internet and countless other innovations. Yet still people try bombard each othwr into submission, or oblivion. Which ever suits the purpose of those in charge. To me that makes today much sadder than it should be. War. War never changes.
I want to talk a little bit about the book tonight. With the 100th anniversary of the battle at Vimy a few days away it still hardly seems real that the book is here. Since a few of you have asked how this evolved I'd like to share how I became a part of it.
Our trip to Vimy occurred all the way back in 2005. My grandfather, wife and I spent 2 weeks of that spring in France and Holland. The main purpose was the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War 2. With so much happening I decided to keep a journal. From the day we set foot in Apeldoorn I documented the whirlwind of ceremonies, parades, and visits to war cemeteries. Through it all we experienced an unbelievable amount of generosity and hospitality that made the trip memorable but also overwhelming. The main purpose of the journal was to keep track of everything so I could look at it after we returned from our trip and digest it in the time in deserved. Over the years that journal has been tucked away and often forgotten.
In the summer of 2016 two things happened that set things in motion. Firstly, my grandfather died at the age of 94. No one in our family felt cheated by his death but nonetheless it was a huge adjustment in our lives. When you miss someone you often find your thoughts filled with memories of them. From the laughter his great grandchildren brought him, to the fishing trips each spring. I write this with the start of trout season just around the corner. The first one without my grandfather. He left a lot of fond memories without it having to involve anything extraordinary. And of course there was Vimy.
That hot spring day at the beginning of May all those years ago still remains vivid in my mind. In one day we found the grave of my grandfather's uncle and visited the battlefield where Grampie's father and uncle fought. In the weeks that followed his death I reflected on this every day. It was during this time that I came across an interesting post on Twitter. A publisher of Canadian military history was calling for essay submissions about Vimy Ridge. This would be part of an e-book that would come out in time for the 100th anniversary. I had seen the calls for submissions earlier in the summer, when my grandfather was still alive. The thought briefly crossed my mind. In the end I didn't feel that I should even bother trying. With no degree or military experience what qualifications did I have to talk about any of it?
Now that he was gone I was filled with two equally strong feelings. One was that I wanted to share our story. No matter how ordinary it may seem, the fact that countless Canadian families have almost certainly experienced similar stories made it extraordinary to me. I deeply wanted to be a part of that book. Thirty years ago my grandfather had given me a copy of Pierre Berton's Vimy. A copy he had received from his brother. I read that book over and over. i read it until the pages fell out. That book started a passion for Canadian military history that resulted in accumulating mountains of books on the subject. It felt right. The time felt right. That emotion was the more logical one. The second feeling was more visceral and to the point. It was simply "What the %@$* do I have to lose?"
I consume lots of podcasts. Sometimes I get tired of my usual line-up. When I wanted to listen to "comfort food" podcasts it was Stuart McLean. I liken it to sitting in a room with relatives, maybe ones you don't see every day. The stories often familiar and heard many times over.
Much like Stephen Leacock's Mariposa, the Vinyl Cafe will forever be a part of our fictional Canadian geography.
There is a time to write and a time to listen. I know which one I am doing tonight.
What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. - Pericles
This is the last flag that flew from my grandfather's flagpole. He took great pride in that flagpole and the condition of both the pole and the flag that flew from it. A fact that my father was always aware of as he was the one that fixed it as was needed.
Thanksgiving weekend we had a big wind and rainstorm. It was about 2 months after my grandfather died. Driving by his house as I do almost every day, I often find myself absentmindedly looking in, getting used to the way it is now. The day after the storm his flagpole lay broken on the ground. The flag tangled and torn in the nearby bushes. In many ways it was a small thing. Inconsequential really. But I couldn't just leave it that way. Knowing he would not be pleased to see the flag that way, I parked at the side of the road and walked back. Carefully, I untangled the flag and untied the ropes, trying not to tear the flag any more. Leaving the flagpole and the last of my patience behind, I took the flag home. I just couldn't leave it. Even though my grandfather is not here to care.
This is how people stay with us. A little voice that pipes up from time to time. Even after they are gone. Those voices of all who have influenced us. Often, popping up at the strangest times. My grandfather lived a long, full life. I've made peace with being gone. This Remembrance Day is still going to be a hard one though. It's hard to explain. And I have no idea what I'm going to do with that damn flag.
The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.
Last time, I left you with the thought of Uluru, better known as Ayer’s Rock. Laying half a world away and looming large deep in the heart of the outback. A giant chunk of sandstone around 350 m high and roughly 9 km around it is one of Australia’s most recognizable icons. Referred to as a monolith, it is technically an inselberg or island mountain. I prefer the term monolith. Even now, over 15 years after standing in its shadow, I still feel it drawing me back. That isn’t just some bit of hyperbole. In the years since, I have dreamt about it time and again. Seeing it as vividly now as I did then I can still picture the dust beneath my feet, the spinifex grass brushing against my legs, the scent of the gum trees strong in my nostrils, the song of the magpies in my ears. I also remember with less fondness those damn dopey Australian flies that wouldn’t give you moment’s peace. And of course the sun, pressing relentlessly down as I went on my brief walkabout around Uluru. The legend and mystery that surround it are not hard to understand when you see it for the first time.
When I first set foot in Australia back in the fall of 1997 I wasn’t completely sure where I was going to travel or what I was going to do. Time and cost would be the deciding factor, although deep down I wanted to see The Outback. To someone who grew up and lives beside the saltwater, this vast arid desert which is home to all sorts of exotic plants and animals was completely unknown to me. It was hard to shake the thought of embarking on a journey into something that had grown into mythic proportions in my mind. The journey itself would add to that mythos. In the next 8 days I would average 1000 km a day by bus. Moving west across Australia and deeper into its heart. The blur of rest stops, road houses and bus stations in the seedier parts of big cities is a story in itself and worthy of telling in detail another time.
Everyone that travels to see Uluru must first pass through Yulara, a resort town catering specifically to those travelling to see the big stone itself. You can’t just arrive here. Rooms must be booked in advance. It has all the amenities that you need. Half an hour after arriving I was on a bus headed for Uluru that I could see lying 15 kilometers distant. I had decided ahead of time that I would not climb it. The aborigines that revere it would prefer that you don’t and feel responsible for those that die or are injured attempting to climb it. That feeling was shared by many of the resort workers, bus drivers and tour guides who won’t discourage it but don’t greet the idea with much enthusiasm either. As we arrived at our destination the bus driver asked each of us in turn what our plan was so he would know who needed to picked up when. When I told him I didn’t want to climb and had no real plan he suggested that I hike around it. The plan had never entered my head but I am glad that I did it. Sunset was a little less than 3 hours away and he would meet me there half an hour before then to pick up the last visitors for the day and take us to the sunset viewing area. This was another unexpected bonus.
The hike around it was unforgettable. As soon as I was out of sight of the parking area I hardly saw another person for the next 2 hours. What was wrong with people that they weren’t doing this? The stone slowly showed me its lesser known nooks and crannies. I snapped rolls up roll of film. I saw everything from reptiles unidentifiable to a foreigner, wallabies, countless bird, foxes and feral cats. The last two introduced by the European settlers many years previously. The rock obviously had a large amount of water run off of it in the rainy season. This was evident in the amount of vegetation that surrounded its base and even the occasion pools that sat in the numerous shady places cast by Uluru that are every changing in appearance. Some of these pools had to have been old as they were used by the Aborigines for sacred rituals and photography and swimming was prohibited.
Caves and petroglyphs could be found along my walk as well. They describe Dreamtime, which was the time when Aborigines believe that the Earth was formed. It was a time when ancient heroes shaped their surrounding and developed practices which are still carried out today. The power that is believed to be held by Dreamtime is thought to be rooted under this giant stone. The track that those who wove it is believed to cross this stone too - another reason that climbing is discouraged. Uluru is a focal point of many Aboriginal stories of which I am not doing justice so I won’t go into further details. It is not hard to see how it dominates their culture and landscape. The ability for it to draw people in was not lost on me. More than once I reached out to touch the stone and I can still remember what it felt like. Being sandstone the feeling was familiar in warmth and coarseness but at the same time I have felt nothing quite like it since.
I was surprised to make it back to my starting point with time to spare. I had taken my time and lots of photos. So I sat there and soaked up some more of the scene until the bus arrived. The driver was delighted that I made it around with time to spare. After everyone was onboard we travelled back towards the resort, stopping at a large parking area beside the road that was already overflowing with vehicles. The next few minutes are a sight I won’t soon forget. Uluru standing orange in the sunlight like it is in practically every photo slowly began to change. As the sun dipped lower and lower the dark shadows that filled the deep stone creases on Uluru began to widen. The color transformed from an ochre color to a dusky orange, then slowly into a deep reddish-purple, then dark purple to gray and finally an unmistakable black silhouette against the dusk as it turned to night. Darkness comes faster the closer you are to the equator. It happened all too quickly, ending in cheers and even champagne bottles popping. Returning to the resort I felt that I had come away with much more than I had counted on. All those miles crossing the desert didn’t seem so daunting. I felt content but not completely satisfied. The next day I returned for a few more hours just after sunrise to see it all again. I do not know how much time I would have spent there before growing tired of it, if that is even possible. That night however, I toasted my fait accompli many, many times in the open air bar and barbeque pit. To get to the restrooms you had to cross a part of the resort that was dimly lit. After several trips I stopped to look up, take a breather and look at the stars. I was taken aback by not being able to recognize one constellation in the southern sky. After a while I think I could pick out the Southern Cross but drunken astronomy is not my strong suit. What I was certain of though was that I was a long way from home. The nearest beach or river that was not dry was thousands of kilometers away and the sky was void of familiar stars. It was not daunting but exhilarating. The brisk night air and a belly full of Coopers probably helped fuel this Zen moment but I will take them where I can get them.
It is a place that I have every intention of returning to. How someplace so inhospitable and foreign holds so much interest to me I will never be able to explain. Yet more rocks play a big part of my psyche and my experiences. Next time we will move away from the purely physical and into the monumental.
Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.
Obsession is something that can take many forms. Many obsessions are subtle, some bordering on addiction. When something doesn't negatively affect your life, you often have a hard time recognizing the affliction. I am convinced that some mild forms of obsession are really more of a compulsion. Some hoard, some eat, some count, some wash, some collect. One of my compulsions only really occurred to me recently. Not surprisingly, that compulsion is stone.
It makes sense really. Rocks form a big part of our lives. Some people are drawn towards the clouds and others are drawn out to sea. Unless you are a miner or a bat, chances are that you can often see the sky above your head. The next time you look up at the sky, look down. What is around your feet? It could be water which covers 70% of the earth’s surface. If not it could be grass, mud, pavement or rock. Sedimentary rock only makes up 5% of the earth’s crust but about 75% of the land surface is covered in it. Sometimes it is under all that grass and pavement. So it would make sense that land, sea and air have been a big part of humanity’s thinking over the centuries. They are inescapable, shaping our minds and lives through both myth and necessity.
Highlights of our lives are often common ones, the relationships that we build, the people that we nurture and the lives that we build around them. Others are more personal, often based on work or play. Fragments of past trips always stick out in my mind and often they involve some unyielding, immovable chunk of stone. I think that it may have started with my trip to the Rockies almost 25 years ago. Standing in the Icefield Parkway, surrounded by the biggest mountains that I had ever seen. I felt so insignificant yet strangely comforted by being in midst of something so huge, and compared to the span of person’s life, timeless. The Cape Breton Highlands are stunning in their own right, but for some reason the Rockies stirred something in me that was only the beginning.
The feeling would stir again and again, seeing Queenstown from Bob’s Peak, the summit of Ben Lomond, Watching Mount Rauapehu - better known as Mount Doom if you are a Lord of the Rings fan - belch smoke from its crater at the end of an active volcanic period. Along the shores of New Zealand you can also find Mitre Peak, the most notable feature of Milford Sound, which is really a fiord. I also found myself at the Punakaiki Rocks, Waitomo Caves, and the Moeraki Boulders. A photo of those same boulders hangs beside my head as I write this. Countless times in folk songs and folklore have both the sea and the mountains been romanticized. These experiences help me understand why so many are drawn to the slopes of mountains and some up onto their peaks. Many have seen more than I ever will but if anything it strengthens my desire to see more and more of those breathtaking piles of rock.
Other places aren’t known so much for their height and enormity as they are for their uniqueness. The Tablelands in western Newfoundland are one place where the earth’s mantle pushed up through its crust. High in iron and low in nutrients the area is largely devoid of vegetation and more reminiscent of a red, Martian landscape than the northern end of the Appalachians. I have to return someday to visit Western Brook Pond, an inland fiord nearby. I have yet to see Perce Rock in Quebec or the Balancing Rock in Digby. The list could go on and on I am sure. Of all of these places, none came to me in me in my dreams, none beckoned me across the miles like one chunk of stone, perhaps the biggest single chunk of stone. And that stone is Uluru, better known as Ayer's Rock.
Check out Part 2, which will discuss my short time at Uluru.
Lovers that bless the dark
October 23rd, 2007. That was a day filled to the brim with memories. The two of us are trying not to get on each other's last nerve while getting ready for our wedding in a tiny hotel room. Krista's feet were blistered from our epic walk the day before. Our trip to City Hall for a marriage license ended up with us walking over much of Lower Manhattan. Many of the cabs decided to go on a one-day strike for reasons that elude me now. Of course, those blisters do not show up in any of our wedding photos.
Then, of course, there was me trying to tie my necktie. It was an experience so traumatic that it is enough reason to not want to get married again. After thoroughly pissing Krista off, I left with my tie tied, some cash hastily stuffed in my hand, and stern warning not to come back to the hotel room while Krista prepared. In the hotel bar, I downed a double (or was it two?) of Jameson's whisky. With my back to the entrance of the bar, I hear someone in the doorway quickly taking photos. Then I hear other people in the bar trying to figure out who I am. I turn to see Sonia, Krista's old friend from Bathurst, smiling and taking another photo of me finishing my last drink.
Sonia goes up to see Krista in our room. I hang around in the lobby wondering if my tie is ok. The two of them show up, and we make our way out to the street and find a cab to take us to Central Park. We are on our way up Eighth Avenue when we get in a fender bender with another car. The two drivers are in a prolonged discussion about the situation. So we pay and walk the rest of the way up Eighth Avenue and Central Park West. Past the Dakota Building, through Strawberry Fields, past the edge of the mall and down to Bow Bridge to meet our photographer, Anthony Vazquez and officiant, Beth Lamont. Krista and I end up getting some photos taken around Bethesda Terrace and the mall while we wait for Beth to show up.
I can remember Beth, Anthony, Sonia, Krista, and I standing in the middle of Bow Bridge with a few onlookers. That is about all I remember of the actual wedding. I can’t recite one word of the vows Krista wrote. Is my tie ok? It came time to sign our Marriage License. We needed to witnesses, not one. So Anthony became our second witness. There was a little problem though. Both Krista and I failed to notice that the license required signatures in black pen. One of the bystanders had just a pen and gladly produced it for us.
Afterwards, there were more photos. I received a gentle ribbing from a NYC firefighter. Krista received a sincere, if somewhat backhanded compliment from a jogger that seemed to be every bit of New York herself. Later, as the sun was sinking over Greenwich Village, Krista and I made our way to a place called Babbo. I had to call a month in advance for reservations. The meal was incredible from what I can remember. It was a seven-course meal with a glass of wine for each course. I wasn't too worried about my tie at that point. Happy Anniversary, Krista.
I have been thinking a lot about something that will not change my life one particle. Regardless of the outcome, regardless of the future it won't make my life any better or worse. So why am I thinking about it so much?
Scotland has made its choice. As I write this the ballots have all been cast but the results are unknown. I really do not know what the right choice is. My head says "No", the financial devastation caused by Scotland seperating from Britian would probably pretty substantial. Some might argue that Scotland being part of Britian caused a lot of economic hardship over the years. I am not an expert on the long, storied relationship between Scotland and England. I do know that a lot would have to be sorted out. Things like currencies, political and trade agreements involving Scotland would all have to be sorted out. Many would argue that the welfare, education and systems in modern day Scotland are all largely in part due to English influence. One might argue that things like industrialization and religious fragmentation would have happened anyway.
My heart says something completely different than my head. It throws all of what we talked about out the window. The thought of an independant Scotland is one that is not all that hard to imagine. It would be the second country born in Europe since the flourish of new countries that were a result of a post Cold War breakup. Serbia in 2006 being the first by my counting. Many of us can also remember a post WW2 fractured Germany, not nearly as many a united Germany from almost 70 years ago. No one can remember Scotland as a true country. Maybe my roots are showing. The Elliott clan came to Canada in the 1800's. Many Scots came here to seek out a better life. A life made difficult by English, anti Scottish policies and practices. Scotland united with England largely due to trade embargoes and the threat of invasion.
Excuse me, I should stop here. This has nothing to do with me. It is really none of my business. My blood has been stirring for days and I have no explanation for it. It is enough to make an armchair revolutionary out of me. I am sure that my Border Reiver ancestors would approve. Where is my kilt? Do I even have a kilt? I do have scotch. Really good scotch. Tonight I will toast the future of Scotland, regardless the outcome. Slainte gu soirraidh. Alba gu brath.
The older I get the more aware I become of my roots. I do not see any haggis in my future but I have been looking at kilts. Tonight I will be raising a glass of single malt. Robbie Burns was a bit of long winded fart, but here is one of his that seems appropriate for today.
Winter: A Dirge
The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.
Some may think that Remembrance Day is a dusty throwback to events fading in history. If only we could be so fortunate. Like many of you, I was at the cenotaph this morning. The Remembrance Day service was moved inside the nearby church due to the wet weather. Arriving just before 11, I did not want to disrupt the service so I observed my 2 minutes of silence outside. Afterwards, I drove to a nearby cemetery. Being a drizzly fall day I was the only person there. Walking through the wet grass and fallen leaves to a spot I have visited many times before, though this time it was very spontaneous. The man buried here is one of the reasons why we should continue to remember. His family lovingly tends to his grave regularly. A dozen or so red poppies have been placed in the soil in front of it recently. A simple white cross adorned with a wreath stands to the right of his monument. I took off my poppy and placed in the wreath. Many Canadian war dead are buried across the ocean and far away yet here this man was, buried a 5 minute drive from my home. The reality of all of this hammered itself home. The significance of this day is not lost in distance or time. This soldier was not a casualty of some long ago war. Buried at Wallace in 2007, he was a casualty of the war in Afghanistan. War still strikes close to home. This is why we take time to remember.