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Landsberg: Remembering John G. Martin and others on this day

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Michael Landsberg
11/11/2013 6:39:28 AM
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Soldiers, veterans and members of the public are gathering across the country and around the world to pay their respects at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of November - to pay tribute to the 1.5 million Canadians who have served their country since the start of the First World War.

Earlier this year, TSN's Michael Landsberg made a special trip with his family to Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in France - the permanent resting place for Canadian soldiers killed during the early part of the Battle of Normandy in the Second World War.

And on this day, Michael shares his thoughts on that visit. Whether it's in the realm of sports or in any other aspect of our society, today - like any other day - provides the chance to reflect upon those who gave their lives for our freedom and those who continue to do so today.

Lest We Forget.

I stood mesmerized by the emotional hologram, called Beny-Sur-Mer, the Canadian war cemetery near Juno Beach.

Was this place hell dressed up to look like heaven, or was this heaven as the final journey from hell? Like a hologram, it was all about how you viewed it. I came to look beyond the beauty, beyond the flowers and the spectacular trees standing at attention honoring the men who would spend eternity under them. The simple beauty of this was blinding and that was the purpose.

This to me, is the paradox of the war cemetery. On the surface, there is a carefree calm. But it is a deception, a ruse, a mask, designed to somehow give comfort to the grieving loved ones who visit. They stand above a six-foot no man's land dividing the living from the pain of the dead. The hologram showed all of us different things, depending on what we came looking for.

Standing on the edge of the cemetery, I realized one had a choice.

I looked at the rows and rows of dead and thought there are two ways to absorb it. The easy way is to stand and look at the headstones as a group, the same way you would look at a forest. That way you see its entirety, not the individual trees. It's easy if you can't see the trees for the forest.

Now pick a headstone. Read the words, but look beyond the words, and consider what it all means. Really think about what this represents. It's not just about how he died, but rather how he might have lived. Make him human. Now it hurts. Now you can't see the forest for the trees. You know what's worse than imagining six million Jews killed? Learning about one. A number doesn't hurt the way a person does.

Above the ground, acknowledgements of God are everywhere with every headstone marked by a religious sign. Every single one had either a cross or a Star of David. Was there not a single family who didn't feel like celebrating God? I watched an old man, standing over a grave make the sign of the cross. His hands were slowed by time and likely a pain that went far deeper than just his joints. I was glad for him that he found comfort in communicating with his God. I wondered whether I could make a thankful gesture to the Lord, over a heart that perhaps he had broken.

I found God's role confusing. I always find God's role confusing, but more so in this place called Beny-Sur-Mer, a few thousand kilometres from my home and a million from what I have lived. This place, more than other cemeteries, was confusing to me because no one could gain solace or strength from saying, "He lived a good life, it was his time."

Everyone in these graves went too soon. Each one a tragedy that spread out in a hundred directions:

To Mom and Dad back home who had cried with joy at the birth of their son just a heartbeat ago.

To brothers and sisters wondering why big brother isn't in his spot at the table.

To grandparents who had rejoiced at his birth, volunteering immediately to babysit.

Here in these graves lies not one soul, but many. Because when he was buried, so too were pieces of the people who loved him. There are 2,049 graves in Beny-Sur-Mer, all of them like elected officials, representing a much larger constituency back home.

My experiences here and at the American War Cemetery, near Omaha Beach, were some of the most important of my life. I had studied World War II and D-Day, in particular, for the past five years - often until the morning's wee hours. While others slept, in the quiet of my home, I spent hour after hour trying to gain enough knowledge to transport me back decades. I wanted to better understand what it was like to be one of those boys, who would never live long enough to learn that they had been part of the greatest generation.

I have often felt guilty about my passion for this war. It is not wrong to be stimulated by a thirst for knowledge about something that poisoned a generation? I thought I knew a lot, but as I took my first step into these sacred grounds I realized, while I knew many facts about the war, I actually knew next to nothing about what war did to those who volunteered to risk everything. And they did it not because of a letter that told them they had to fight. They went willingly, proudly and knowingly. Yes, knowingly. These kids were all products of another war generation. World War I still haunted their homes and their world. Yes, these young men had booked a ticket to hell knowing what lay ahead.

I believe my generation has always felt both an awe and inferiority to this group of men and women. Have any of us not wondered - could I have done what they did? Have any of us not thought there is no way we could have shown the same bravery they did? There is no answer because, while hours earlier I had walked a mile on the same shores that they walked, I didn't even walk an inch in their shoes.

I came to this spot wanting to learn. Acquiring knowledge though is like drinking salt water. The more you drink, the thirstier you get for more. The more I learned, the more I needed to learn. I was not content to read the headstones, telling me who was buried, but not revealing in any way who that person was. I felt like I owed more to these soldiers, these men, these boys of the greatest generation.

Before I actually stepped a second foot into the Canadian cemetery, I was forced to do a double take. I have always wondered if these men buried here were in any way different than men buried in other country's cemeteries. And there it was. The answer.

Sitting there amongst the wreaths and letters, amongst the homemade crosses and flowers was a hat. All of these things were placed there to provide comfort for the living. We come to cemeteries, or at least I do, based on some kind of hopeful assumption that the dead will know we were there. Wishful thinking perhaps, but comforting just the same.

This was perfect. The hat. Not just a hat but also a sign, a statement, a bridge between generations. My son and I saw it at the same time. That's my son Corey, one of several hundred 27-year-olds in the cemetery at that time. The difference between him and the others was that they were losers of the random lottery-of-conception which dictated they were born in 1917 in Canada. Being part of the greatest generation came with quite a price tag. Corey and I were both captured immediately by the Team Canada 2010 hat. What is it that makes a group of Canadians different than groups from other countries? What are the qualities that we possess that others don't? Qualities that we have been gifted with, through some process, half Darwin, half Tim Horton's. If ever there was a Team Canada, it was the one that landed on Juno Beach. I asked our French guide, a remarkable man with astounding knowledge of the battle for Normandy, how Canadians fared compared to other nations. He said Canadians were the bravest, the most committed and the most willing to die for the buddy beside them.

Was he speaking of a Canadian rifleman, or a Canadian infantryman or a Canadian hockey player? How do we describe a Canadian style of hockey? We know if you win the small battles, you usually win the war. If you have your buddy's back, he will have yours. Take a hit to give a hit. Better still; take a hit to make a play for your teammate. And most of all we Canadians know that you're playing for the uniform not the name on it. Those buried in Beny-Sur-Mer could have been many things - wingers, defencemen, goalies, but they were soldiers.

Looking at Corey and Casey and Karen, I thought about the victims of war who were never buried in graves and celebrated- the victims who lay awake at night wondering where their child was. What parent hasn't been frantic with worry 20 minutes after curfew? What kind of hell must it have been to be a parent with a child in Europe between 1939 and 1945? But especially on June 6, 1944. To be huddled around the radio, listening to words they all wanted to hear but dreaded hearing - “Allied naval forces began landing this morning on the northern coast of France.”

Was this the beginning of the end of their nightmare, or was this simply the end?

I looked at my son standing beside John Martin. John is the son of George and Cora Martin. He is younger than Corey, just 22, but they have a few things in common - they both love sports, love hockey and both love the Toronto Maple Leafs. And they both have the same crappy handwriting, and both appear to enjoy posing for the camera. That's where the similarities end - Corey's hair is blond and straight and John's is as wavy as, well the English Channel on June 6, 1944. John loved to sing as his mom played the piano, while Corey has never sung a note.

The other big difference is that John is dead.

I had searched for John's grave after tweeting a week in advance that I was visiting Beny-Sur-Mer and would be honored to visit a loved one's grave. I didn't know anyone buried there and I felt like my trip would have more meaning and purpose if I could pay my respects. So I heard from a Rob Owens, whose uncle was buried there. His name: was John G. Martin.

Standing at John's grave, I was struck by how small it seemed. Just a narrow plot of land, a small gift to John from the French for giving his life to liberate their country. Standing there, lost in my own thoughts, I was confused. I looked around me and saw the people I loved most in the world and I realized what the confusion was - how could a grave that small ever contain all of the souls who were lost? Buried in that grave was not a single soul but parts of so many souls. For each one of the graves, there are so many whose hopes and dreams in life were killed by the same Nazi bullet that killed John.

So now, I had met John G. Martin. Well, actually I had met a block of stone measuring 32 inches high, 15 inches wide and 3 inches thick. This told me little more than what the Geneva convention told John he had to give the enemy if he was captured: name, rank and serial number. Every headstone looked the same - the military cemetery may be one of the only places I have seen where the class system does not exist. Even the military hierarchy is absent. Every headstone is identical to the next. Row on row, they stand. There are no rich and no poor, no old money or new money. Money is a worthless currency here. Was it Thomas Jefferson who declared, “All men are destroyed equal?”

I felt like I owed John more than what the headstone could tell me. So after returning home I asked John's nephew Rob if I could see any mementos saved by his mom - who was John's sister. He gladly obliged and when we met he handed me three large envelopes. I was excited and afraid to see what was inside and mostly felt undeserving of seeing what was there.

When I got home, I emptied the contents of the larger envelopes onto my dining room table. There was now a large pile of letters, notes, pictures and newspaper clippings. I paused to take it all in. I was shocked to feel a far greater sense of sorrow standing over this pile of John's history than I did standing over John's grave. Here on my dining room table, where we have gathered a hundred times to celebrate the joy of living, here lay John G. Martin - son, brother, friend, hero.

There were big and small envelopes and they all somehow looked so dignified. In 1944, mail somehow appeared more formal, more crisp, more important. I couldn't possibly share all I learned from this collection of history. In fact, I learned more from these 47 letters, 63 pictures and 45 newspaper clippings than I had learned from everything previous. I felt like a fool, having believed I understood anything about war. I will, however tell you about one letter. It somehow stood out from the rest. I'm not sure why, but I just knew.

It was standard 9” x 4” letter size. The kind of envelope you get bills in all the time. This was the largest bill ever paid.

I wondered how it was delivered. Likely from a friendly face who might, on most days, hand over his mail with a “Good morning, Mr. Martin.” Did he hand it to him on this day? Did he look him in the eyes? Would he be scarred for life from passing along letters, some of which contained bombs that would explode after he was safely down the street?

I held it in my hand, likely the same way John's father did 69 years ago. I still didn't know what was inside, but somehow I knew. On the envelope it said simply:

Mr. George Arthur Martin,
Pickering, Ontario.

Yes, this was a simpler time. A time when the post office knew where George Arthur Martin's home was. And therefore they all knew that home being where the heart is, this letter might be destined to kill a part of everyone who read it.

The envelope was torn in the corner and then cut neatly across with what I assume was a letter opener. I wondered how John's dad had opened it? We all treat dread differently. Did he want to get it over with quickly, or did he want to hold onto hope as long as he could? I used my thumbs to separate the two sides of the envelope. I was sick. Sick for every parent who had ever done this.

As I held it I thought of my own fears as a parent and my own demons all of a sudden seemed to return. What I held was every tragedy that war has ever caused. The tragedy of a parent, holding a paper whose weight was just a few grams but carried the weight of the world. Those who would send our young off to war should hold this paper.

I thought of my own tortured moments as a parent. I thought of waiting with Karen in a doctor's office, waiting to hear a diagnosis on Casey's eyes. I thought back to a night when Corey was out late and the phone rang and call display showed the police department. I thought of all of that. The unknown, the waiting, the fear, the helplessness - and I was crippled by sadness for the Martins, for all the Martins.

The paper was folded twice - still standard procedure for placing letters in envelopes.

The folds were deep and fitting. Their depth was a sign of the 69 years they had held the paper closed. Fitting because like folds in a furrowed brow, they strained from both the weight of time and the weight of the words written on the page.

I slowly unfolded it. Looking at my hands I was surprised how old they appeared. These hands had held my children for a thousand hours each. They had thrown baseballs to Corey, helped Casey up onto a horse. They were well worn. The way they should be.

I looked at the letter as a whole. Just a bunch of words, but words have the power to devastate, to kill, every bit as much as the famed German machine guns that killed so many of our boys on Juno beach so long ago. I looked at the top, again wondering how George Martin had looked at it.

Did his eyes linger over the first six lines? They meant nothing. Did he fool himself into thinking it wouldn't get any worse?

Department of National Defence
Army
Ottawa, 23rd June, 1944
Mr. George Arthur Martin,
Pickering, Ont.
Dear Mr. Martin.

I stopped there. Again my thoughts weren't mine by choice, but rather like I was being held down and forced to view a movie of my life. I saw Corey beside me at a hockey game. I saw Casey giving a speech as valedictorian. How could I go on? How could anyone go on? This was a moment that should never exist. I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth, trying to prepare for the words I knew lay ahead. Had George Martin done the same?

“It is with deep regret…”

Nothing after that really mattered. “It is with deep regret,” the five most powerful words ever spoken. Five words that John, Cora, Helen and Mary Martin would carry with them for eternity.

“It is with deep regret that I learned of the death of your son, B64089 Rifleman John Gordon Martin who gave his life in the Service of his Country in France on the 6th day of June, 1944.”

This was the Emancipation Proclamation of their lives in reverse. They were now destined to be slaves to this letter for life.

On this Remembrance Day, 2013, I will remember, not just the thousands of John G. Martins, but the many, many more who gave the ultimate sacrifice as well. Death doesn't just come when the heart stops, it comes when the heart is broken.

In my hand I felt like I held the meaning of war. After a billion words written, after all the movies - this war, every war could be summed up in 14 words. It didn't matter whether the words were typed on a letter, written by hand, spoken at the door or perhaps never even conveyed, but just assumed - war was hell, even if you dressed it up to look like heaven.

"It is with deep regret that I learned of the death of your son..."

otr@tsn.ca

Normandy (Photo: Michael Landsberg)

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(Photo: Michael Landsberg)
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