Each year on November 11th, nothing can keep us from our memories.
Growing up in North Vancouver during the 50s and 60s, we children were taught to respect and honour heroes. Of all the admirable ones around us, none were considered more courageous than the WWI and WWII veterans. My dad, John, and his brother, Lewis – my mom’s 3 brothers, Douglas, John and Bill – and Auntie Chris (who was also Uncle Lewis’ war bride) – all saw active service in Europe for six long years.
For most of WWII, Mom was still a student at Queen Margaret’s School. She and her family, who lived in Canada – an ocean away from the fighting – practised rationing so that the troops could receive more food. She rolled bandages, knit socks and wrote letters to cheer up her brothers as well as lonely recruits.
My dad returned from six years of brutal fighting with “shell shock”, a condition we now call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) He was only 19 years old when he shipped out and not quite 25 when he returned to Canada. Afterwards, he said that he would dissuade anyone from going to war. He didn’t believe it was the answer to disagreements between nations. Attending the Veterans’ Day parade wasn’t an activity our family took part in.
Dad belonged to a division of the Royal Canadian Engineering Corp that took part in the Liberation of Amsterdam, his father’s birth place. He knew that one of his cousins, an artist named Gisele, lived in the city and he wanted to meet her. He did in fact do so – in the living room of her small flat – surrounded by the Jewish friends she’d hidden during the entire Nazi occupation. He and the army buddy who went with him to his cousin’s home could hardly believe how terribly underweight and weak they all were. “No one weighed more than 80 pounds,” Dad said. The two Canadian soldiers returned to their base and “liberated” food and other supplies from the Division’s larder. Aunt Gisele later told me that those provisions saved her group from starvation.
After their brief time together in Amsterdam, the cousins never met again. But they exchanged letters for many years.
Sometimes Dad would compare the nightly news stories about Vietnam with his experience during WWII. My city, Vancouver, had become home to an unknown number of “draft dodgers”. Dad always encouraged me to be kind to any homesick guys I met. “I know they are missing their families more than anything and you should bring them home for supper whenever you think it will help,” he said. He too met a large number of these confused young men at his work place. At the time he was personnel manager for Seaspan International at the Vancouver Shipyards. He couldn’t give those boys a job without proper paperwork, but they always got lunch or dinner with dad, and he would allow them to use his office line or our home phone to call their parents.
My dad died young. After the funeral Mom gave me some of the letters he exchanged with Gisele, and I carried on correspondence with her. Finally we met in 2003. Her curiosity and generosity, her art and the friendship she and Dad shared, deeply impressed me. So much so, that I wrote a book about Gisele and her bond with my father, the man she called, my tall Canadian Liberator.
I smiled the first time I heard Gisele describe my dad that way – he was 5 foot 6 – but height is not the only feature that can cause a man to be called, “tall”. Conversations with Gisele – and my own loving memories – helped me to understand that he indeed fit all of them. The sacrifice asked of him was a “tall order”. He could tell a “tall tale”. He always “rode tall in the saddle”. And when it came to character, my father “stood tall”.
Today I honour John Robert van der Gracht. I feel grateful for his brave service, but I also hope we will learn to resolve our differences with compassion and tolerance, instead of guns.