It was a quiet, mature street in my home town where I was to find my first apartment. Out in front of the building was an antiquated fire hydrant, resembling a sentry guarding the entrance; its' many coats of thick red paint glistened in the sun. Near the curb, an impressively large, looming maple tree affording adequate shade. I can recall hundreds of maple seeds swirling down like tiny helicopters, propelled by a northern breeze, eventually resting upon my car in the fall of that first year.
I loved that car. It was, of course, my first. Longer than the longest Caddy, I know because I compared it side-by-side to quite a few. One of the last behemoths that Detroit produced with the notion that bigger was better. My 1968 Dodge Polara 500 Two Door Hardtop had had several owners, and the odometer was close to having gone around for the second time. However, it must have been lovingly cared for as there wasn’t a dent or ripple on any of its lengthy body panels. It was a gift from my father, on my becoming a man, and he had painted it fire engine red, using an unconventional method, a paint brush! My friends wouldn’t believe me when I told them how the paint was applied, and it was neat to watch them going over the car with their eyes, searching for brush marks, but there were none to be seen. The exhilaration of driving it alone for the first time is still fresh in my memory. My right hand on the wheel, the left arm resting outside the open window, looking down that long, beautifully sculpted hood to the open road, with a Roy Orbison 8 track playing on the stereo.
Eighteen and on my own, working in the Sudbury mines, it was then I felt most alone. I just couldn’t figure out what the secret was to being a happy, fulfilled person. I felt like I was outside looking in on a world that was a mystery to me. My perception was one of abandonment, akin to the last soldier left alive on the battlefield. I would struggle with those feelings for the rest of my life.
The building on St. Nicholas Street was old but well kept, and my basement apartment was one of five with glistening hardwood floors and hot water heating. A month or so later, the landlord asked me if I would be interested in sweeping the stairs throughout the building, as well as tend to the garbage and outside walkways. I agreed, and for a small amount off my rent, I attended to my new duties twice a week.
It was then that I met him for the first time. He was leaving his apartment as I was sweeping the stairs reaching up to it. Surprised, I said “Hi” and told him my name.
He said “I’m John, nice to meet you. “ As he passed me on the stairs, he very slowly took one step at a time because of a significant limp. He was a huge man, easily six foot six, somewhat portly in stature, his silver hair neatly combed. He smelled of Brylcream and aftershave. His face was deeply lined, each one a potential story to tell. The wooden stairs creaked eerily with his weight upon them as he made his way down to the front entrance. A lunch box sized hand gripped the railing, sliding as he descended. There was just something about him that was strangely familiar. He drove away some five minutes later, and finally, I knew who owned the dark purple AMC Ambassador parked in the space next to mine. I had noticed since my arrival that the car never seemed to move, faithfully sitting there, patiently waiting for its owner to take it for a ride.
I was sweeping the walk when he pulled in about an hour later. It seemed to take him forever to exit his car, because of his bum leg, and then he opened the trunk and loaded up his arms with two large paper grocery bags loaded with food. I recognized the large “D” on each bag, which was the logo for Dominion Grocery Stores. I had worked there as a bag boy while in high school. I approached John and offered to help, and he gratefully accepted.
As I carried the two bags, he followed me up the three flight stairs. I reached his door long before he did, and I patiently waited for him to make his way up. Opening the door, he asked me to put the bags on the kitchen table. The air inside smelled of stale cigarettes and old furniture. A light coating of dust had settled on the numerous framed pictures of people I surmised were his family members. As my eyes glanced around, they immediately fixated on a German World War II helmet that hung on the wall, along with a Beret, several ominous looking bayonets, and what looked like medals in a box. I wanted so badly to ask him about them right there and then, but now wasn’t the right time. Perhaps an opportunity would present itself later. Sooner than later, I hoped.
“Well, back to my chores” I said as I left, and he thanked me for the help.
A couple of weeks passed, and I ran into John once more, just as I had hoped. Again, his arms were full of groceries, and again I offered to help with them. “Here you go son”, he said, and handed me two large bags. I waited for him to climb up to his apartment, and he asked me to put them on the kitchen table as before. “Would you like a coffee once I put these groceries away?” he asked. I excitedly said “sounds great”, and I waited in his living room. While sitting on the sofa that smelled of moth balls, I glanced around, and noticed the dust was a little thicker than before on the numerous picture frames and antique furniture that filled the room. In one corner was an antique radio; you know, a floor model with a beautifully carved wooden cabinet. “I wonder if it still plays”, I thought. In another was a portable TV with bunny ears, which looked out of place in this museum like setting. Sitting there, I felt as if I had traveled back in time. I was interested in knowing more about John, so I took special notice of the numerous photographs in ornate frames around the room. Two large oval frames with concave glass on the wall held the images of, I was to learn later, his Father and Mother. There were several in black and white from the war, of him and his army buddies in uniform. There was his wedding photo with his wife, on the steps of a church I didn’t recognize, also in black and white.
I stood and moved toward a side table in another corner to see what seemed to be a shrine of framed pictures, immediately beside and facing a very large easy chair. I assumed most of the color photographs were of his son, (the resemblance was uncanny), his daughter in law and their kids. I also noticed John was not in any of them.
John handed me cup of coffee, and he asked me about myself; where I worked and if I had family in town. I told him I worked in the mines, and was estranged from my broken, dysfunctional family. I didn’t share with him how horrific the abuse was, not until much later.
I wanted to learn about him! He answered many of my queries about his experiences in the war. He told me of the landing of the Canadian Royal Regiment at Dieppe, and of the slaughter of thousands of young men that ensued. His battalion landed a few kilometers away at Berneval, and after taking heavy losses, had to retreat. He told me he lost three good friends that day. I could see the agony of loss fill his face for a moment, and for about thirty seconds he was silent. Memories thirty three years in the past, and still painfully raw to the emotions. John added that he later learned the raid was a test to measure German forces and to determine how a future major landing assault might succeed. Mostly, though, it was to split the German Army forces so that the Soviet Red Army did not experience the full might of the German army. “The enormous sacrifice Canadian soldiers’ made that day was a calamitous necessity in order to bring the war closer to an end”, he said. Again, he paused, and asked how my coffee was. I could see he was tiring, so I drank the last sip, thanked him for sharing, and I asked him if we could get together another time. He said “sure, I’d like that”.
Over the next several months, John shared his experiences during the war with me. I finally got to ask him about the German Helmet hanging on the wall. He removed it from a soldier he had killed, as a trophy, along with his bayonet. He stressed that he no longer considered it a trophy. He kept it there on the wall to remind him of man’s inhumanity to man. I knew not to ask him how it felt to kill a man, because I could see the regret in his face, and I was sure he had taken no pleasure in it. “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers” he said.
I held up the wooden box lined with blue velvet which contained an array of medals. I gently brushed the dust off the glass, and I asked him what they were. He hesitated, and I could read in his face his reservation in answering. An imposing blank expression came upon him, and I hoped I hadn’t touched a festering wound. He re-gained himself, and then came his answer. Absent of pride, he matter-of-factly explained; “this one is “The Dieppe Bar”; another the “Companion of the Order of the Bath”; The Army Class “A” Medal for service at the Front; the ”Korea Service Badge”; and the dark brown one there is the “Victoria Cross”. Then he admitted to being tired and needed a nap, and so, I left.
The only medal that sounded familiar to me was the last one. He didn’t seem too interested in discussing them further, so I didn’t ask what the medals were for. A trip to the library the next day enlightened me about the medals and why they were awarded. When I got to the last one, the
“Victoria Cross”, the ugly brown one in the box, I was shocked. “For most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy”. This was “The Medal”. I continued reading. “Only 96 Canadians have been a recipient of the highest war honour of the British Empire since it was instituted in 1856." On the other page in the book was a list of the recipients, and there was Johns’ name, right there along with the others. My fingers shook as I ran them along his name, making the discovered treasure all the more real to me. I was never more excited in my life.
A flurry of thoughts rushed through my head as I considered the implications of what I had just learned about the lonely recluse I befriended. This unassuming giant of a man, who left his apartment only for groceries and errands maybe three times a month, if that. The elderly man on the second floor who never seemed to have a visitor, but for me, is one of the greatest heroes this country has seen. I wanted to rush right back home and ask John what he had done to earn the medal. Or should I? Would I embarrass him? Would it be too painful for him to talk about? He showed little interest in the medals yesterday. There was no boasting in the man. Unpretentious would be the adjective to describe him.
After careful consideration, I decided not to bring it up the next time we met. Instead, I asked about the pictures on the table next to him. “Is that your son’s family, I asked”? His countenance brightened immediately.
”Yes, that’s my son Bryan and his wife Cathy, and my grandchildren”. They live in Montreal. Bryan is an accountant and works for a large firm there. John was full of pride talking about his son’s accomplishments, and of his two grandchildren. “I haven’t seen him for over ten years”. “Haven’t met his wife or my grandchildren either; but he does send me pictures every once in a while”. “I suppose I’m as estranged from my family as you are”. There was a forlorn timbre to his voice.
And there it was. The familiarity I felt towards him. The sullen aura we both projected. John and I were kindred spirits. The circumstances were certainly different, but the results were the same. I had survived a war that was crowded with casualties and without a victor, and so had he. The losses were unbearable. The injurious toll on each others psyche, the same. Fertile fields, generous with blossoms, never to flower as they once had. We talked for hours. It’s wasn’t easy to watch John cry, the huge man that he was. My tears poured out from the same river of despair. Sharing our pain solidified our friendship. I treasured the time spent with him.
Winter’s grasp had a strangle-hold on what had to be the coldest day in February. My apartment, across from the boiler room, was always toasty warm. However, upon waking that morning, I could see my breath in the air. Walking across the hall to the boiler room, it was easy to see something major was wrong. After calling the landlord, I thought I’d better go up and tell John what was happening. I knocked on his door. No answer. I knocked again, still no response. A feeling of foreboding came over me, and I rushed down the stairs to see if John’s car was outside. I was hoping it was gone, but I knew he always waited until the afternoon to venture out. Now outside, I ran around the corner of the building to see John’s car, covered with snow and ice, in his parking space. A blanket of dread enveloped me. I ran back up the stairs, called out his name and loudly knocked on his door. No sound. No response.
I asked the Police Officer if they would inform Johns’ son in Montreal of his death. “I’m sure there is contact information for him among his things”, I said. “I know he doesn’t have anyone here in town”. The Officer assured me they would. I watched as the attendants strained to carry John’s body down the flights of stairs. It took some time. And as he was taken away, I could feel the tears freezing on my face.
Thirty-five years later, my life has mirrored John’s in many ways. My apartment smells of stale cigarettes. A thin layer of dust covers the furniture. Visitors are non-existent. And beside my easy chair, is a shrine of photographs of those I love so desperately. I recall a quote John shared with me during one of our many afternoon talks. “The soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war”. Douglas MacArthur.