Mon 30 Oct 2006
i went on a date last night.
not with Oscar’s father, no. too conventional, that…better to get gussied up for someone else and keep Dave on his toes.
of course, the person i actually poured myself into pantyhose for is my nearly eight-seven-year-old grandfather, so Dave wasn’t exactly eaten up with envy or anything. but still, i wore eyeshadow. which, these days, is the equivalent of squeezing into a ball gown and sticking a rose between my teeth – a Big Event.
my grandfather called three weeks ago and asked me if i’d go with him to the Mayor’s Dinner this weekend. we’ve gone out now and then over the years since my grandmother died, whenever i’ve been in town – traipsed off to weddings or the Fireman’s Ball together. my grandfather likes to be seen with a girl on his arm. i like the fact that our more than fifty-year age difference makes me look vaguely like a girl, still…and i like my grandfather’s company.
but from the event itself i didn’t expect much. i figured on an awkwardly jovial political dinner, part of his local worship’s efforts to curry favour for next week’s municipal election. the electoral equivalent of a Rotary meeting, essentially. i wasn’t entirely clear on why my grandfather was invited.
turns out it wasn’t a campaign dinner at all. the Mayor’s Dinner is a ceremony, rather, to honour local veterans…twenty-three of them this year, my grandfather among them. i began to suspect that my assumptions about the evening might be a little off when we walked into the banquet room and i noticed that everyone else had gray hair. and poppies. and medals.
my grandfather was a communications agent during World War II. a spy. he worked for British Security Coordination under Sir William Stephenson, the man called Intrepid, and Bill Donovan, first director of the CIA. he trained at Camp X, a top-secret commando camp, working with codes and with early computers. he parachuted into Yugoslavia, and was at Yalta and at the Teheran conference, where he had a drink with Molotov (not cocktails, he swears). he was at the first UN conference in San Francisco in 1945. when the British closed Camp X and burned the records in 1949, he turned down the offer of a CIA posting in Washington, returned to PEI with my grandmother and my infant father. he is still officially bound to silence about aspects of his service, under a British oath that will not likely expire before he does.
spies get a glamourous rep. Ian Fleming, who trained at Camp X, fictionalized his wartime exploits in the persona of 007, James Bond, world’s suavest agent. my grandfather, however, is not overwhelmingly suave. he walked away from the spy game and became a mechanic, apparently without looking back. at eighty-six, he still goes into the auto-electric shop everyday. his hands are permanently grease-stained, and usually gouged. he’s pigeon-toed, and near-sighted: a tough, sometimes ornery, mischevious old bugger. we were actually at the mayor’s table during the dinner last night, and had to have a little conflagration over in our corner about which was the salad fork and which was dessert. this ended in a joint admission of complete ignorance, at which point my grandfather started picking at his salad with his fingers.
what spies don’t seem to get is a lot of recognition. there are no medals for most of their missions, and the solitary nature of their work means that few of them have grown old alongside brothers in arms. so last evening – sitting at the mayor’s table, having his service record read aloud, getting to be public about what was such private, secret work – meant a lot to my grandfather. his eyes shone, wet and pleased and humbled…and far away, replaying a time and a world i’ll never really understand. when the British burnt the Camp X records in 1949, my grandfather told me, they did so because they knew that in fifty years another generation would excoriate them for the things recorded in those files. he lives with that. with all those secrets.
and me, with my conflicted misgivings about the military butted up against my crush on history and my deep affection for this fine, rough, sweet man who taught me all the dirty jokes i know…i was just proud to be there with him.
there was a somewhat staid dinner of brown food, some oversweet cheesecake, an open bar on the mayor’s tab. and then twenty-three individual awards of recognition, each with a recap of the honouree’s service. some were gunners on the beaches of Dunkirk, others nurses posted to Halifax for the duration of that war. a few had served in Korea.
Oscar will never know this generation of veterans. they are frail now, many bent and wispy and rheumy, unsure of which direction to smile in when the photographer tries to snap their picture with the Mayor. by the time O is an adult, most of them will have faded into history, as have the World War I veterans i remember from elementary school assemblies…a whole era of cultural memory gone extinct.
i cannot pass on to him what i do not possess. but i can record last night in this baby book blog for him, and mention how glad i am that he came in time to meet his great-grandfather, and hope that he someday finds his own way to honour what he cannot remember.
this is who you come from, son.