Murray Patrick idly fiddles with his blood red poppy. It’s pinched between his thumb and forefinger, and a few knuckles down there’s a purplish bruise from years of pricking IV’s, that is almost as round as one of the plastic pedals.
With his free hand he points to the far wall, where three black and white photos hang. They are black and white shots of young men in air force uniforms, grinning deeply- the photos haven’t faded over the years, almost as if they were taken yesterday.
“Nice looking fellas, huh?” he says with smile, peering over his spectacles rather than through them. “My brothers- we were the only family in Canada during the war to have five brothers in the airforce.”
He points to the picture on the far left. “That’s Keith, he just turned 90 years old the other day. We’re the only ones left, still kicking. It’s so much easier to keep in touch now, with email I can hear back from him in five minutes. During the war all we had was letters.”
Murray then goes on to tell why, for a number of years, he and Keith didn’t even have that tie.
During the war Keith’s bomber was shot down over France. Out of a crew of seven, only three of them survived. There was the putter of gunfire, and before he knew it, Keith had woken in a cornfield- he had hit his head on the astrodome underneath the radar, and couldn’t even remember opening his parachute.
As the wreckage smoldered and the headlights of German patrol cars drew closer, Keith and the other surviving crew members crawled, hands and knees in the dirt, for two miles until they reached a tiny farmhouse.
Aghast, the family there had to term them away- they feared for their daughters, and the Nazis would be sure to search their home after they were through with the wreckage in the nearby field.
But they didn’t leave Keith without a leg to stand on. Gabrielle Gruel-Halform (at 16, the oldest daughter in the family), loaded Keith and his comrades into the back of the family hay truck. After covering the Canadian airmen with a thick tarp, she fired up the engine and turned onto the dirt road, toward German lines.
When they reached the checkpoint, Keith could hear the guards telling Gabrielle they were looking for an enemy bomber crew that had crashed nearby.
“She told them, ‘Well, if I see them, I’ll surely report them to you.’ That took guts,” Murray said with a faint grin. “If the Nazis had known, they’d have shot the bunch of them.”
“That one in the middle,” Murray says, pointing to a photo solider that closely resembles Keith, except for a mustache and a harder gaze. “That’s Edmund, he was shot down over North Africa.”
Murray goes on to tell Edmund’s tale- after his plane crashed in a fiery blaze, he was taken prisoner and shipped off to Italy. Edmund spent over a year and half in a prison camp north of Simona, before breaking free.
“He walked for six weeks, all the way to the toe of the boot in Italy. Couldn’t speak a lick of the language, but the peasants were friendly and helped him get by,” Murray said. During that time Edmund went up into the mountains, and worked on farms to avoid patrols. When he got far enough south, by some strange providence, he bumped into a patrol of the Canadian Royal 22nd Regiment, and was saved.
Of course, Murray didn’t hear about any of this until after the war, when he had his first opportunity to reunite with Edmund and Keith once they touched down on Canadian soil again.
“I was the youngest, and the first to join the airforce, just before the war in 1939,” Murray says. “And they didn’t start shipping people out seriously until well over a year after that, after I’d been posted on a Canadian base. You can imagine how that made me feel.”
Murray spent the war tinkering with engines on Canadian soil, simply for signing up too early, waiting for word from his missing brothers. It was the toughest thing he could’ve imagined, but his mother’s words offered a bit of solace.
“People would ask her, ‘How can you smile, when you have two sons missing?’” Murray says. “And she would tell ‘em, ‘Oh, they’ll be back. And they were doing what they should’ve been- serving their country.’”
It was hard for the family to stay in touch while Keith and Edmund were serving, even before they completely lost contact with them, because letters could never speak the volumes they needed to say.
“You had to be very choosey, very careful, when you wrote to one another. Because every envelope was torn open, every letter inspected so heavily,” Murray says. “On top of that, it would take ages for the letters to get there. It left an awful lot of room for worry, and for wondering what was really going on.”
But letters were their sole tie, and they simply had to make due. Murray said it’s different now, with internet and cell phones, the world has shrunk so much that that kind of worry can’t fester so badly. And that’s not the biggest change he’s seen in his lifetime, especially in November.
“People don’t look at war the way we did- then everyone was going, or at least involved,” Murray says. “It’s different now, Remembrance Day is different now.”
“But I don’t blame them, young people now, they need to worry about their educations, and not a war,” Murray says. “Especially now that there’s no Hitlers in the world, I don’t blame them for not being too concerned. Our war was different, it had the whole world in a grip.”
“But Vietnam, Iraq? So many bloody wars, and for what?” Murray pauses, casting a glance at his brothers’ pictures, “That’s a question we have to remember, all year-not just in November.”