Striding down Yonge Street in Toronto on a fall day in 1945, Elmer Foy looked the picture of male vigour. Always polite, the striking, tall Irishman stopped when two posh, stony-faced women stood in front of him. They handed him an envelope and kept on walking.
Elmer opened it. A white feather – the symbol of cowardice – fluttered to the ground.
Little did they know Elmer was among the first to hurry down to the recruiting centre to sign up for the war. But a damaged rheumatic heart he tried to hide from the army docs kept him in Canada.
Little did these shallow matrons know this aircraft engineer built Lancaster bombers for the pilots to fly in the bloody battles overseas. Elmer laboured day and night, often sleeping on the factory's cement floor. He fought the war with every talent and moment of his life.
All the time, Elmer grieved the loss of his brother Blake.
Blake Gordon Foy was flying a night flight July 23, 1944 over rural France. The plane was a British Royal Air Force Stirling. Loaded with supplies for the brave French Resistance, plus eight British Special Air Service soldiers on the Operation Rupert mission to attack German communication lines in the St. Dizier area, the plane's pilot battled an electrical storm and fear of enemy fire. Blake, 21, was the gunner.
The aircraft crashed. Five airmen and eight of the SAS died. Blake was one of them.
The good folk of the small village of Graffigny-Chemin gathered the dead and buried them in their local cemetery. No one from the family has ever gone to see Blake's grave. But they still mourn.
Elmer talked about him only once, saying, "He was the best of all of us."
Elmer's other brother Jack flew in the air force. He returned alive, but with damaged lungs and moved to small town Northern Ontario to try to find peace.
Elmer himself stayed on to work on the interceptor aircraft, the Avro Arrow, dying after Diefenbaker cancelled it. "A broken heart," declared Elmer's doctor.
So many decades ago. Yet the trauma never left those men and all those who fought that treacherous war. The damage spilled over onto their families. I know, for the men I just described are my relatives.
They called it shell shock then. Now it is post-traumatic stress disorder. Most never spoke a word about what happened over there. Only they know what they went through.
Canadian musicians Tanglefoot captured a snapshot of those solders' reality in their song Vimy. Here's a bit of the chorus.
"The last sound I ever heard was an explosion
And bodies flew like apples thrown by boys at play
When I could see again, I was alone and Jimmy wasn't there
And a crater marked the hillside where he'd lain."
Think of all the wars since then - Korea, Vietnam, peacekeeping missions, Afghanistan.
No matter what we think of the ethics of war, those men and women who fight in our country's name are heroes.
Remembrance Day is in the offing. Yes, we must remember those who have gone before, but our soldiers are overseas and here in Canada now.
Edmonton MP Laurie Hawn, himself with a 30-year career as fighter pilot in the forces, wrote in an email, "We ask so much of our men and women and they never fail to respond in a manner that should (and most often does) instil pride in all Canadians."
The parliamentary secretary to the minister of defence, Hawn described how Canada owes "the military members two principle things - proper equipment and training for the task at hand and strong personal support for members and their families." He went on to share how this support continues after the mission.
"We know there is always more we would like to do and we need to ensure those in need can access funds and services with as little red tape as possible." He ended his missive with former British MP George Canning's quote, "When our perils are past, shall our gratitude sleep?"
Edmonton is working to honour the wounded from Afghanistan, the Second World War, Korean War, peacekeepers and RCMP with the building of a special housing complex on 111th Avenue. Named Valour Place, the $10-million facility – due to open next spring – will shelter the wounded and their families while they are receiving treatment. It is the first of its kind in Canada.
In the meantime, sporting the poppy speaks one's appreciation.
So does saying a "Thank you" to someone wearing the military uniform.