I have two daughters. When they were teenagers, a friend asked me if I wished I had boys.
“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Have you seen my daughters? I’ll never have a shortage of boys around.”
And it was always true. Until they settled on their husbands-to-be, I always had more boys around than I knew what to do with.
It was an education. Even having been one, I never realized how dopey teenaged boys - and even young men - could be.
One time my eldest daughter’s fiancee was helping me trim some branches off the apple tree by the garage. About twenty feet up, he stopped and straddled a limb, then plucked an apple off a branch and, bracing himself against the trunk, swung the axe like a baseball bat, trying to connect. He missed, and nearly overbalanced. So he tried again. And again.
I blinked slowly and looked at my daughter. She rolled her eyes. “He’s a boy. Boys don’t think first. They do, then they think.”
When I look at the two young men who shook out of the pack and stuck around, I can appreciate them for their good qualities. They’re both funny and bright and charming and certainly show an adorable, puppy-dog kind of goofiness.
They’re young fathers now, closer to thirty than twenty, but I’ve known them both since they were about 17 and in high school.. In many ways, that’s how I’ll always see them - young, dorky, prone to shaky judgment, prone to the occasional hangover, and sometimes just ... well, prone.
Hey, they were kids. A night spent hugging the toilet bowl is God’s way of teaching us that alcohol ought to be sipped, not guzzled, and it’s a lesson most of us learned the hard way.
All this brings me - in a typically roundabout fashion - to November 11th. What my American friends know as Veteran’s Day is known in Canada as Armistice Day or, more commonly, Remembrance Day.
On November 11, Sunday, I’ll do what I always do: go down to the Cenotaph in the centre of town and watch as the ever-thinning parade of snowy-haired, stoop-shouldered veterans marches past and they collectively accept the applause and gratitude of their fellow citizens.
And I’ll think about who they once were.
They were teenagers, most of them - or at best, barely into their twenties. They were the very same age as those young men who my daughters looked at with such adoring eyes. They were alive and brimming with energy and confidence and great ideas and sky-high hopes and that unique feeling of utter invincibility that comes from being so ridiculously young that any aches you get disappear overnight.
It’s hard to see that as these senior citizens parade past. But then, it’s equally hard to imagine my daughters’ boyfriends and their pals in the boots those veterans wore 70-odd years ago.
Picture a teenaged kid you know well - a son, or a nephew, or the kid down the street. Now, lock his face into your mind ... take a moment and really do this ...
... picture him, all gangly and coltish and fuzzy-faced, in an Army uniform. How preposterous he would look, how laughably out of place, crouched down in a landing craft rolling violently off Juno Beach in the hours before dawn of June 6, 1944.
Picture that teenager you know so well leaping up as the landing craft hits the shore, piling into the backs of his buddies as the front gate slams open ... and finding himself in the gaping maw of a Hell he could never have imagined when he signed up with all his friends.
He rushes forward, the very air around him rent with streaks of sizzling death, the ground under his feet shaking. He hears a voice scream his name and he turns.
It’s his best friend, the pal he used to go out and drink beer with only a few months and a lifetime ago. They’d build huge bonfires on the beach and bet one another they could jump over the flames, and he can still remember the time his buddy misjudged and ended up with flames licking at the crotch of his pants and had to run over and sit in the water and how they laughed about that for months.
But now when he looks back, his best friend is missing half his face, and that can’t be right. And in the next few seconds eight more bullets slam into the inert body, adding insult to death. Someone smacks his back, urging him up the beach and he goes, even though every step brings him closer to the same kind of hideous fate. But he runs, because what else is there to do ..? And those last thirty seconds have forever changed him, and very few of his friends and loved ones will ever understand just how much.
It’s so painful. I close my eyes and focus, and still it’s almost impossible to see those ... those boys that hung around my house going through that Hell.
That’s a good thing, I suppose.
But it means I have to work harder to appreciate Remembrance Day. I have to tax the limits of my imagination to glimpse the sacrifice and pain and horror these veterans went through so that my generation - and my daughters’ generation - wouldn’t have to.
I have to do it.
These old men who once were so young deserve nothing less.