A century has passed since the events in this story took place in a little town—Belleville, Ontario. It’s the way I like to remember wars—all wars on Remembrance Day.
My father told us this story many times about his own father. It’s the best “anti-war” story I’ve ever heard. With great respect to all those who have sacrificed their lives, I think we would honour them better by reflecting on evolving to a better state of mind where we would create alternatives to making war. Many will say we cannot achieve that because aggression is part of human nature. But human beings have evolved and we can do so again.
I am working on a novel [The Wondrous Apothecary] in which one of the characters, an old man damaged in the Second World War, says, “Seventy five years later and we’re still no better than we were thousands of years ago. Maybe we blow things up just for fun and to see what’s underneath? Such a wonderfully wicked lot we were!”
NINETEEN SEVENTEEN, Mary E. Martin
We buried Uncle Henry at the little cemetery at Roslin. My father, dressed in his black suit, starched collar and bowler hat, made a stark figure against the brilliant June sky. I looked up at the family gravestone, tall as a church spire. Father stared down at the open grave. Cows grazed in the field beyond the fence, the wind sang through the grasses and flocks of birds swarmed up against the sky. They lowered the coffin into the ground.
Henry was Father’s little brother. At Vimy Ridge, he dragged a man back to the trench, through mud thick as porridge. Badly wounded, Uncle Henry was shipped back to the hospital in Halifax. Father didn’t go down east to see him, thinking they’d bring him back home, safely. But Uncle Henry died there. Alone.
When the service for Henry was done, Father turned away and took off his suit jacket. Mother folded it carefully over her arm and followed him back to the Model T. Pete, the farmhand hurried along behind Father.
Even at seven, I knew Pete was not right in the head. Just a big little kid, with an open, trusting face. But something else was strange about Pete. When he spoke, he couldn’t look you in the eye, but he had a way with all kinds of animals. I’ve seen him quiet a horse with just one glance, like he could talk to them without using words.
I never told you father only had one arm. His left arm was cut off by a threshing machine at harvest time, the summer Uncle Henry died. By the time Pete found him, he’d lost a lot of blood. But he carried him back to the house for help. All the men came round to pitch in, but it was hard. They couldn’t leave their farms for long. And I was only seven. Pete did the work of three men that harvest.
It was 1917 and more men were sent off to war. When we drove into Belleville to see the troops off on the train. father wore the same black suit.
I was excited. My friend Jim and I wanted to wear uniforms and berets and go to far off places like France and England. With pitch forks, we played at killing the enemy behind the barn. Together, we massacred battalions until we fell exhausted in the hay.
On the platform, the soldiers stood tall and straight. The women, in their long black dresses and grey skirts hugged them and cried. Father walked over and took my hand. His face grew hard as granite.
The Lieutenant marched from behind the station to the dusty clearing on the north side of the tracks. Everyone could see the black train edging down the track. Sniffles and broken voices died in the wind. The dogs from the town barked at the train still half a mile away.
Standing straight and stiff, the Lieutenant screamed out. “Attention!”
The men in uniform straightened and the women dropped back.
The Lieutenant shouted out the name of each soldier. “Abel, Barker, Clemens, Darcy” on down the line. Hearing his name, each soldier turned for one last hug, one last kiss, then marched swiftly into the burning sun. The black train puffed its smoke as it neared the station. The dogs kept barking and growling. The trumpeter and tuba player played God Save the King and then the Maple Leaf Forever. The junior band from high school sounded like a herd of cattle, but the boys were the best we had left.
The train brakes screeched to a halt, metal grinding on metal. At last, there was silence except for the steady wind catching the screen door of the station and making it slap on its hinges.
The Lieutenant shouted, “Men! Left turn. March.” His words swirled about in the dust and sunlight. Father grasped my hand so hard, I almost cried.
Then I heard a choked screech. “No! I don’t want to go!”
A soldier threw down his kit. The crowd gasped. Flinging his beret on the ground, he ran straight at us. The sergeant chased after him, ready to drag him back like a dog.
Only when the soldier landed at my father’s feet did I realize it was Pete. Sprawled in front of us, he grabbed my father’s pant leg and curled up in a ball.
“Please, Mr. Williams. Don’t make me go. I’m scared.” Grime covered Pete’s face and tears flowed down his cheeks. The dogs started barking and running in circles.
“Save me please, Mr. Williams.” Pete wound his arms around my father’s knees. With baton raised, the sergeant reached out for Pete’s collar.
Father’s eyes were fixed on the horizon when they softened. His mouth tugged at the corners. At last, he lowered his gaze and reached down for Pete.
In his misery, Pete looked up with trust into my father’s eyes. Please Mr. Williams,” he breathed, “I don’t want to die.”
The women and children had gathered about us in a tight circle. Their skirts rustled in the wind. A dog began nipping at the sergeant’s boot heel. He shook him off.
My father spoke with gentle authority. “Stand up, Pete.” He helped him to his feet.
“Too many have died,” Father sighed, as he turned to the sergeant. “I need this man on my farm. He has worked hard for me for many years.”
Slowly father removed his coat. “I have only one arm, Sergeant. And a seven year old son.” He dropped the jacket to the station platform.
The stump of my father’s arm hung loose in his pinned shirt sleeve. The Sergeant tapped his boot with his baton.
“Pete Denby is a simple man, sir. But I cannot manage without him.”
Quiet words began to ripple throughout the crowd and the women began to nod among themselves.
“If there is a price, I will contribute two of my finest horses to the war effort.”
Nodding their approval, the women gathered closer. The sergeant turned. His heels clicked sharply on the station platform as he marched back to the Lieutenant. The two men huddled in a conversation. The dogs had finished growling and lay panting in the sun.
The sergeant returned and gazed intently at my father. “Where are the horses now, sir?”
“Three miles north, on my farm. You shall have them at once.”
The sergeant marched back out into the blazing sun. Pete kissed my father’s hand and dropped once more to his knees.
Father absently patted his head. “Stand up, Pete. ” I had never heard my father speak so gently. “You’re coming home with us.”
At last, Pete rose. The circle of women and children parted for us as we made our way to the Model T. Pete followed like a small child, dangling from my father’s hand.
I climbed into the rumble seat and looked out behind. The soldiers hung out of the train, desperate for one last glimpse, one last touch. The women hoisted children up and ran along the platform as the train slowly gathered steam and left the station for the war. The dogs retreated into town. Father’s coat still lay on the platform and even though I told him, he never went back to get it.
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Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing. Yes—there is a seventh novel, which is not part of either trilogy. Provisionally entitled The Wondrous Apothecary, it is scheduled for publication in early 2018.
Please feel free to look around the website and visit the shop for all six novels http://www.amazon.com/author/maryemartin