Doors to the Past

 

June 6, 2004

Believe it or not, this is about the 60th anniversary of D-Day. But it starts with a pet peeve. Bear with me.

You’re coming through a doorway in a public space—a mall or a subway station or a store—and you notice there’s someone coming behind you. You stop and hold the door briefly, just to make it easier for them. You do it because it’s common courtesy, so the door won’t hit them in the face as it swings back. And people will generally extend their hand to take the door from you. Sort of like passing on the open door from one to the next. But some people seem to think you’re holding the door for them so they can walk through without having to exert any effort of their own. No attempt to take the door from you. No hand extended. They just breeze on through, like they’re royalty or something, and you’re their doorman.

I don’t like it when that happens. There have been a couple of times when I’ve actually let go of the door when I saw that the person I was holding it for had no intention of putting their hand out to take it from me. It sure as hell surprised them, I’ll tell you that. I just walked on.

I’m not proud of that. But it does make me smirk a little.

Of course, when you’re coming through a door in a public space, it’s sometimes hard to know at what point you should stop to hold the door for the person coming behind you, and at what point it’s okay to let it go. It’s a fine line sometimes, and generally my rule of thumb is that if they’re far enough away that the door would close fully before they reach it, then it’s okay to let it go.

Exceptions should be made, though, for people who have their hands full, maybe carrying several shopping bags, for instance, or a clumsy cache of groceries, or for people pushing baby strollers and/or with small children in tow. Of course, when it comes to these kinds of social etiquette rules, elderly people are generally always deserving of special treatment.

For instance, last week I was heading into the Spadina subway station after having dined at a nearby Indian restaurant with some friends. As I passed through the street-level entrance, I noticed there was an old man coming in from the sidewalk behind me. He was moving slowly, shuffling along, age having taken its toll on his body. Legs didn’t move the way they used to, the way he wanted them to. He was a small, shrunken man, slightly stooped. Though he was sufficiently far enough behind me that I could have justifiably kept going, I stopped and held the door and waited for him to catch up to it. When he reached the door, he took it in hand, and thanked me in a quiet, weak voice, seeming somewhat surprised, looking up at me through large, thick glasses. I continued on my way, gliding through the automatic turnstile with a swipe of my metropass. He was still in the foyer, fumbling through a change purse or something, trying to find a token I suppose. Just another nondescript old man coping with the tiny everyday struggles that come with old age. I felt good about holding the door for him, giving the extra effort, but that was about as much as I could do.

Fast forward to today, June 6, 2004. The 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy in WWII. I was watching the extensive coverage on CBC, and I was struck again by this fact: that the old men and women we pass by on the sidewalks without a second thought, the ones we are sometimes impatient with as they take their tottering old time getting on and off busses, or as they take forever to coax the correct change out of their pockets and purses in the supermarket lineups—these could very well be the same people who 60 years ago were fighting their way up a beach in Normandy, praying that this wasn’t the day they die; watching friends and fellow young people—most would have been in their late-teens or twenties—lose their lives in the brutality of war around them; tending to the wounded, the mangled; living each day knowing with a certainty that even if they lived through this thing, they would not do so unscarred. Loss was a given. Loss on a large scale. It was never far away.

And they did it with a purpose. They did it for a reason. War is always chaotic and insane and brutal, but they knew why they were there. They understood why sacrifices were necessary. And they went willingly. There was an old word they used, that decimated generation. A word we don’t hear much anymore: Duty.

How long ago that was, and how easy it is for those of us from successive generations to be disconnected from that reality, the reality they lived through.

Today’s ceremonies and commemorations were all very impressive and moving. The Queen attended the Canadian ceremonies at Juno Beach, where the Canadian forces landed on D-Day. She and our Governor General Adrienne Clarkson (a former TV journalist) and our Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke of the sacrifices made, and of Canada’s role. But for me, the most moving image was that of the dozens of octogenarian Canadian veterans in their blue, sometimes red blazers and berets, medals dangling from their chests, marching down to Juno Beach, and then walking along the beach. Their beach. Some with canes, limping, moving as best they could on bad knees and hips and aching joints. Pushing through the years. Just like the old man from the subway. Maybe he was among them.

Some walked in clusters together; some off alone, contemplating the sand and the pleasant waves greeting the shore. One old man was carrying something in a small plastic bag. He ambled to the edge of the beach and, rearing back his arm as best he could, tossed it as far as his old arm would allow into the surf. A private memorial of some sort. Ashes of a since-fallen comrade perhaps?

But all were doing one thing: remembering. I saw one leaving the beach, stopping to wipe his face, tears lingering in the wrinkled folds.

What did they do on that day? Sardined into metal landing craft in the pre-dawn darkness, sick to their stomachs, scared as hell (as one veteran said, if anyone tells you they weren’t scared, they weren’t there). And then the craft jolts to a stop, the door splashes open, the first of the bullets come whizzing in, ricocheting off the hull. The sickening thud as metal hits flesh and bone.

ping ping zip thud thud ping thud thud…

And there’s just one imperative: Run. Forward. Keep moving. Reach that wall. Don’t stop.

Don’t stop. Even as you step over the bodies of your buddies, sometimes your best friends, men you’ve spent the past three years training with. (Men! Most were barely beyond boyhood!). Don’t stop.

Don’t stop till you’re wounded, they were told. One of the lessons of Dieppe.

Unimaginable what carnage they must have witnessed on that beach 60 years ago. And what bravery they found within themselves to do what they had to do.

Could we do that today? Despite what I’ve heard some people say, I think we would. For a just war. Sure, it was a different time, a different generation. But it was a different war. That was no Vietnam. That was no Iraq. It was a war fought in black and white. It was the free world responding to a mad man, a certifiably insane tyrant who was in control of a highly industrialized nation which he had moved to a war economy, built what was the most modern and powerful military machine of its day, and was using it, and his despotic control over his nation to conquer an entire continent and kill millions and millions of people, including some through systematic extermination. Horrible experiments on children. A political policy of dehumanization.

It’s almost hard to believe when you think about it in those terms. It almost sounds like a script for a bad sci-fi comic book. A murderous mad man trying to take over the world! People my age and younger have grown up in a world where those events had already happened and were over and done with. A chapter in the history books. An abstraction. Happy days were here again, and we had never known when they had been suspended for a time.

But for those old men walking on Juno Beach, it was no abstraction. For an entire generation, it was their problem to deal with. And they dealt with it. They sacrificed. Their bodies. Their youth. Their lives.

They were willing to give everything in one supreme effort. Willing to give everything, and ready to lose everything. And many did. And because of their efforts, an evil was brought to an end.

Thank you for your efforts. Thank you for holding the door for us.

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