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I have always looked for a bridge between the past and the present. I devour books, movies and TV shows on various historical events. In my 21st-century life, however, the bridge seemed almost too vast – people and their stories are out of reach, hidden beneath black-and-white footage and yellowed pages. Until one day, that bridge seemed passable.
As a student volunteer at Niagara Military Museum in Niagara Falls, Ont., I discovered a place that allowed me to feel a connection to history. I transcribed documents, helped organize exhibits and even sometimes led visitors on a museum tour. I heard stories from many individuals, about their families and their histories. However, there was one story in particular that I remember vividly.
I walked into the museum one Saturday morning and was ready to get to work. Before I could start, I was stopped by my boss and ushered into one of the exhibit rooms. There, I was greeted by a Second World War veteran and his son. The two of them had come for a tour and had stopped to chat.
As I introduced myself and he began to speak. I stood there in silence as I heard his story. It was just a casual conversation, but the weight of what he was saying was not lost on me. He was relating his war stories so humbly, but to me, they were incredibly heroic.
He had just turned 100 years old, but every time I looked at him, I envisioned a younger man of 18, 19 or even in his early 20s. I began to wonder what he had been like at my age, how different the world must have been to grow up in. I thought about what he must have looked like in uniform as I listened to him talk about what he did at an age not much older than me. Our experiences growing up were so different.
In his presence, I felt smaller. I thought about what I had experienced in my life thus far; surely not comparable to what this airman had gone through. As he related each part of his story, my feeling of being in the presence of a hero heightened. My awe contrasted with his modesty. His humility was unbelievable. To have gone through such a momentous event – one of the largest events in human history, with all its unimaginable destruction and terror – and come out of it with a “no big deal” attitude was incomprehensible.
To me, his manner was so cool – a hero downplaying his heroic actions. But to his generation, fighting in the war seemed to be just the “thing to do” – a duty to King and country in a time of great turmoil. I felt the distance of time shorten, but also grow farther away.
At some point, my boss and the veteran’s son left the room to tour the rest of the museum. When asked if he would join them, he chose to stay behind and continue our conversation. I felt awkward, with the desire to ask so many questions but unable to find the right words or phrasing. I was also aware that perhaps asking specifically about the war would be a troubling topic. So I asked him about his life growing up. To my surprise, we found similarities in that both of our families had come from Scotland. I felt clumsy telling this man about my life after I had just heard his wartime experiences. All of my experiences seemed so feeble but I did begin to feel that by talking to him I could cross the bridge into the past.
No longer was I confronted with black-and-white archival footage, retellings of stories through Hollywood movies, or the pages of a history book. While all of these undoubtedly have a place in education, there is nothing quite like having a conversation with someone who has lived through the event.
I became emotional. Maybe because he reminded me of my great-grandfather, whom I never met, but had also fought in the Second World War. I have heard stories and always wondered what my great-grandfather’s life must have been like.
Meeting with this veteran cemented my love for history. Perhaps the bridge between past and present can never be entirely crossed, and perhaps it isn’t meant to be. But our conversation provided me with a sense of perspective and made my world bigger. At the end of the visit, he stood up and shook my hand. He helped me realize the importance of remembrance and Remembrance Day.
I cherish the conversation I had with this hero, but there are many stories that remain untold. I plan to study history further and want to ensure that stories such as the one I was told by this veteran are recorded for future generations.
Kirstyn Hipkiss lives in Fort Erie, Ont.