I first posted this November 11, 2007. I've never reposted before, but felt this was due.
When I was 13, we moved to the High Park area. Our neighbour was an 79-year-old man called Dennis Yates. He became a friend, not really a surrogate grandad at all, just a good friend. Most days after school, I dropped in for a cup of tea. I can still remember the smell of his kitchen which had not been renovated for a long time. He kept his home nicely, considering he'd been widowed for quite a few years at that point.
Dennis had moved to Canada from England when he was 12, in 1910. He'd had to go out to work almost immediately, and remembered seeing - in a very Orange city - signs saying "No Jews or English need apply." He got work somewhere, I can't remember what it was.
When the war broke out, Canada - still part of the Empire - of course went to war on the side of the British. Only 15 years old, Dennis thought it might be a lark, and went to sign up. He lied and told the recruiting officer that he was 16. He knew by the look in the officer's eyes that he was aware of the lie, but he was accepted anyway. When Dennis returned home in his new uniform, his mother burst into tears. So he went to train, then he shipped out and went to fight. He celebrated his 16th birthday in a trench, where he was given his first drink.
At Passchendale, he was in a trench built for nine with just one other man. He remembers, kneeling in the mud at night, hearing the "whizz-bangs" coming over, and his friend (an older married man) cursing up a storm. In the next instant his friend just disappeared, completely annihalated by what had come over. Dennis had taken some shrapnel in the back of his thigh, and he was shipped out. In a make-shift Oxford hospital, he had the large piece of shrapnel removed. Out of anesthesia, the nurse gave him a piece of rubber to bite down before they performed the procedure, and said to him, "You go ahead love and swear all you want!" When he told me this story, his eyes got big and he said, "So, I did. I swore! I said 'Jesus Christ!'"
So Dennis survived the war, as did his brother Walter. During the depression he worked as a farm labourer during harvest time, all over Canada. He got three big, square meals a day and worked extremely hard. The way he saw it, he was doing a lot better than many at that time. In his late 30s (I think), he met his wife. I was always so moved when Dennis spoke of his wife. I could kick myself for not remembering her name, but he loved her so much and would tear up sometimes remembering her. I gather she was a strong woman, which helped the courtship process as Dennis was quite shy. They married and had two children, a boy and a girl. Dennis worked for O'Keefe brewers and they attended the premiere of Camelot in Toronto, in the early 60s, to celebrate the opening of the O'Keefe Centre. They saved over the years, for a magnificent European vacation. Before they left, Dennis's wife was diagnosed with cancer. They took the tour with two friends, another couple, and Dennis showed me the lovely holiday diary his wife kept. It was the first time he'd crossed the Atlantic since WWI. The tour went well, but then she got quite ill and was in pain, and so they came home, where she passed away.
Dennis railed against war. He also believed that if it had to happen again, they should send old men like him out, and save the young. He saw a generation destroyed. And then - of course - twenty years later, it happened again. I don't think it will ever end, this need to go to war, for whatever reason.
A few years later, on my return to Canada, I dropped in on him. It was apparent that he had some memory loss, as he didn't recognize me at first. He thought he did towards the end of our brief conversation. A few months later, I heard that he'd passed away. Knowing Dennis was a lot more interesting than the truly dreadful history classes I had at school. He was living history and a good friend.
I'm lucky to be when and where I am. And I'm so grateful to people like Dennis who fought so that I could live how I do.