Spontaneous Ritual: Back to the Cenotaph

Spontaneous Ritual: Back to the Cenotaph November 13, 2015
redpoppyrostislavekralik
“Red Poppy” by Rostislav Kralik. Source: publicdomainimages.net

On November 11 this year, I reposted last year’s article that I was inspired to write after witnessing the gradual evolution of a Canadian cultural ritual around Remembrance Day (Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day) that took place at my local cenotaph.  As you might expect, this year I took my lunch break early, since I was working at the bookstore, and when my men came to fetch me I went over to the cenotaph again, shoveling a sandwich in my face so that I would be free for the ceremony.

There had to be twice the number of people who were there than last year.  I recognized the lovable dog I’d patted and the cute little girl in the pink jacket I’d smiled at; who was now a little taller.  This time the cenotaph gate was still locked, but there was a scuffed poppy wreath already laid in front of it.  My friends and coveners, who were there last year, came back as well, everyone with a poppy and a look of determination.  I scanned the crowd and the gate for the elderly veteran whose words had so moved me last year; but he wasn’t there. Then Jamie nudged me and pointed.  “Looks like the people might force them to bring it back to the cenotaph,” he said.  “Check it out; we have cops and everything.”

It was true.  This year, three uniformed police officers were standing to one side of the gate.  I recognized the tall, blond female officer as one of those who’d come when my store was broken into a few years ago.  I smiled hello at her.  Their poppies were affixed in their uniform hats, as is proper.

To the other side of the gate was a boy in a white shirt and tie, with a red jacket thrown over it because it was really cold; a frost lay over the grass.  A woman who was obviously his mother stood next to him, holding what was clearly a music sheet.  He was carrying a bugle, and touching it to his mouth periodically to keep it warm.

My heart glowed.  If you’ll remember, the veteran from last year said before we began our two minutes of silence, “Since it seems that they have not provided us with a bugler today, I shall blow my whistle.”

I wasn’t the only one looking for the elderly soldier from last year; a man who had obviously been just a boy when he went to war.  But we didn’t see him.  We did see a Navy veteran with his medals and his dress blues, standing unobtrusively to the rear of the cenotaph; just part of the crowd like everyone else.

One of the police officers made a pointing gesture to a man who’d come to stand in front of them.  He was thin, dirty and scuffed, and looked to me like he might be homeless.  I didn’t hear what the cop said to him, but I clearly heard his reply as he stood up and pointed proudly to the medals on his chest.  “I’m wearing my father’s World War II medals,” he announced, “and I’ve come to honour him today.”  It occurred to me that medals can be sold for cash, and he was pretty thin.  My heart swelled with pride.

“What time do we have?” someone asked.

“It’s five to,” answered someone who was looking at their phone.

At that point a woman came forward.  She was wearing a blue winter coat and she had a lime green computer tablet.  “I have a poem I’d like to share.”  And she read a heartfelt poem I’d never heard before about the sacrifices of the soldiers and the point of remembrance.  Everyone listened attentively and applauded the tearing-up woman when it was finished.

Someone looked at their watch.  Two city busses pulled up to the terminal.  Both drivers got out and stood with us in their yellow safety vests, with their blood-red poppies making a clear contrast against them at the breast.  So did all the passengers.

Suddenly a tall man whom I hadn’t noticed before bellowed in the voice of a drill sErgeant: “PARADE DETAIL! ATTENTION!”

The police officers stood to attention.  We all took off our hats.  The boy shuffled off his jacket.

“Two minutes of silence begins; NOW!”

The boy began to play “The Last Post,” faltering a little in places because of the cold.  Remembering the veteran from last year, and the words to “The Green Fields of France,” my eyes teared up.  I heard a rumble in the sky and looked up to see the annual Remembrance Day flypast in the form of four small biplanes.

Nobody said a word; not even the dogs or the children.

When the last note of the bugle faded, the “drill sergeant,” whom I was later told was yet another war veteran (though I imagine of our most recent, Middle Eastern conflicts,) cried out, “PARADE DETAIL; AT EASE!” and the officers clicked their heels and came to a parade rest.

“We invite you to come and lay your poppies on the cenotaph to honour the veterans,” announced one of the male officers; and the female constable opened the gate and approached the cenotaph, still in parade formation.  She saluted the monument and laid her poppy at its foot; then filed out.  Jamie and I stepped in behind her and doffed our hats again.  As is our custom, we laid our offerings,and our poppies, at the foot of the monument too; corned “bully” beef, a small flask of rum, and two cigars; a good day for a fighting soldier.  As we passed the bugler we both patted him on the shoulder and said, “Great job; thank you.”  When we got around the cenotaph we found the blond cop and the Navy veteran standing side by side.  We shook their hands and thanked them too.  I bowed a little to the distinguished Navy veteran, not knowing what else to do.  And one by one, all the people — maybe fifty, maybe seventy of us — did the same.  Soon maybe a hundred poppies, red like shed blood, red like the colour of life, splashed the base of the cenotaph.  And then,with another shout, the parade filed out.

Everyone milled around afterwards, not wanting to leave.  Then the bugler-boy’s mother asked for attention; and when we gave it, she asked those who remembered to repeat the words with her; the ones that come from the poem “For the Fallen” by Robert Laurence Binyon.  Because of that wonderful elder army veteran last year, I remembered:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

People stood there again together in the silence and solemnity, not sure of what to do next.  Then Jamie shrugged and said in his best Army voice, “Well, somebody’s got to bloody do it!”  And again he doffed his hat, and I joined in immediately as his resonating baritone began to sing our national anthem:

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee!

We sang it all together, hats off, with the military and police personnel formally saluting the flag.  “Well, someone had to bloody do it,” Jamie said again when he was done, a little nervously.  And at that point we turned and left, with tears in our eyes; and there was not a dry eye in sight as several people quietly thanked him.

Erin said that somebody told him that the veteran whose spontaneous speech rallied us so much last year had passed on since.  I’m so glad I had an opportunity to hear him speak.  I’m so glad I took my camera with me so that others will remember it too.

And the most beautiful part of all of this is that this was not rehearsed.  This was the power of the spirit that moved us all to come together spontaneously, at the place we felt was the right place to come, to share our usually-subtle Canadian patriotism, our deep appreciation of the huge and terrible sacrifice of war, and our solemn and endless gratitude for those who fight and put themselves in harm’s way for our protection; especially those who paid the ultimate price.

Lest we forget.

First: Spontaneous Ritual – Lest We Forget


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