I wake to sleep and take my waking slow
“I wake to sleep and take my waking slow. I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go.”
Ladies and Gentleman…
He was 16 year years old. A tall, blonde, skinny boy, the youngest of six children. He grew up in Teeswater during the depression. His dad was killed when he was a toddler. His Mom took in mending, cleaned peoples’ houses and somehow made ends meet. When the war came his four older brothers enlisted as soon as they got the chance. Five, young, handsome, brothers from rural Ontario. Lightning’s, what they called him, and he wasn’t about to be left behind. So his big brothers did what brothers do, they lied for him. He was enlisted. They were going to have the time of their lives.
The other? He was 16 too. Tall, blonde and skinny, the oldest of six children. He grew up in the 90’s, the product of two working parents and a time in history that thought a lot of its kids. Lightning’s brothers all took on different roles on behalf of their country….one a pilot with the RCAF, flying reconnaissance missions over Africa and India, one a mailman delivering mail from home to war weary soldiers stationed in France, one a member of the automotive training corps, one served in the ordinance corps. Lightning, baptized Clarence, found his place in the 1st Hussars and became a tank driver.
Somebody by the name of Lightning probably knew his flash of brilliance would be short-lived. During the stormy, dreary, rainy night of June 5th 1944, 822 aircraft carrying paratroopers and gliders began the first of what would be the Normandy assault and eventual collapse of the Nazi regime. This weather posed many problems for the Allies but regardless ships set sail, planes flew and troops went to war, among them a young boy doing all he could for his country. In the early dawn of June 6th 1944, a day that later become known as D Day, the 5000 + allied ships composing the largest navel armada in history approached the shores of occupied France. At 6:31 am the first landing craft opened its gates at Omaha Beach, the most heavily fortified of the five beaches, where the Americans would suffer the tremendous loss of 2,400 lives. The Canadians followed shortly after at 7:55 am, at Juno Beach, the second most heavily fortified. Delayed by a treacherous low tide and many mines, they now faced the Germans with far from ideal landing conditions. The 1st Hussars, the London tank regiment made up of mostly farm boys, landed safely on the beaches of Juno and began to make their way inland. The Hussars, intended to be support for the advancing infantry, had landed late and missed most of the beach fight.
The Canadians fought determinedly and went on to clear many of the small towns along the coast. The 1st Hussars were the only unit in the landing that met its objectives, having to pull back because they out ran their infantry support. This feat credited the Canadians as being the deepest in France and most successful of all the landings at the end of the day. Having lost, only, 1,000 men. One of the Hussars first objectives was the liberation of a small town, known as Fontaine-Henry, located near the coast. It was heavily fortified and the Hussars were ambushed upon entering the town. During the street fight that followed the tank of young Lightning was machine gunned and destroyed, killing Lightning and his fellow troops. Sixteen years old, driving a tank for his country, his “coming of age” adventure, his chance to see the world, was snuffed out.
The other? He left during more peaceful weather, the bright, sunny afternoon of June 20, 2001 at 3:35pm. No armada, rather, a mere one airplane carrying a boy, his father and grandfather, three generations en route to the battle grounds of northern France. They didn’t know their route, where they would go, what they would witness, where they would sleep the next night. All they knew is that they were going to have the time of their lives. They landed in airport chaos many hours later and began the route followed by Canadian soldiers 87 years before. They traveled to the Somme, Passchendale, Vimy Ridge, saw monument upon monument, battle field upon battle field, and cemetery upon cemetery. Realizing there, the immense loss suffered by so many.
They walked the trenches and shell holes of so many years before, now green with grass, where years before they were indistinguishable with mud, tainted with the blood of so many young men. They walked through the Fields of Flanders touching the still wild growing poppies which inspired the famous poem by one John McCrae who too now rests amongst those very same poppies. They visited Ypres Salient and the Menen Arch where the names of 54,896 commonwealth soldiers with unknown graves are inscribed, and the Tyn Cot Cemetery the largest in Europe where more than 12,000 commonwealth soldiers rest at peace. Then they walked the beaches of Normandy and Dieppe and followed the Canadians on their journey through yet another world war, they traveled along the once great Atlantic wall, through the Arc de Triumph and finally down the streets of one Fontaine-Henry. They later visited the Canadian Cemetery at Beny-Sur-Mer the burial site of the Canadian D Day casualties, amongst those the grave of a Clarence Edward Homuth. Lightning’s what they called him. They say that coming of age is not without a sacrifice – a loss.
As for Lightning and his great adventure?
Well, he gave up everything, didn’t he. As we stood there, four lives entwined, four generations combined: my grandfather, my Dad, my great Uncle and me, I felt it too. I realized my Canadian nationality, my identity, my place and, my loss. You see, the story of the loss of my Great Uncle’s life, is the story of a loss shared by so many, by a whole world really. Sept.11th, 2001 reminded us again of how a world feels stopped still, by such a loss. Compared to Lightning’s generation, we grow up with so much. Yet we still seek adventure. Adventures of the kind that we think will make us grown up. Too often, we seek them in all the wrong places. I see that now. I saw that then, as I stood at the graveside of a boy my age. No, at the graveside of a man my age.
The poet Roethke must have been thinking of us when he wrote: This shaking keeps me steady. I should know. What falls away is always. And is near. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go. — The above is a speech I wrote and presented 9 years ago. It won every contest in which it was presented and I ended up taking it to New York to say it at the United Nations.