I can remember it like it was yesterday.
I was a teenager, watching my father take a proud-looking buck from the roof of his car.
“How could you kill such a lovely animal,” I asked, my voice taking on my know-it-all edge, I’m sure.
But the old man didn’t lose a beat.
“I’ve had to kill people,” he said. “I don’t lose any sleep over killing animals.”
I walked away, shaking my head, no doubt disgusted by how hard and unfeeling my father had become. And yet it was one of the few times that Sam — William Sanford Levangie — ever mentioned his war experiences.
When we talk about the Second World War, we talk about horrific numbers. So many dead, so many lives lost. The events scarcely seem imaginable. The Battle of Britain. The fire bombing of Dresden. The Holocaust. Hiroshima.
More than 42,000 Canadians were killed. More than 6 million Jews were exterminated. A reported 15 million Soviets lost their lives. More than 70 million men and women never came home.
The numbers are so large, and so horrific that we simply cannot comprehend them. What little understanding we can glean comes with something more personal.
I look at my own life, and the things that I have lost and I often think it’s through no fault of my own. And I understand now that a generation of men and women returned home from the war, their lives in tatters — through no fault of their own. As a group, they were far more innocent, far less worldly than their children. Far less worldly than I am. They faced unspeakable sorrows. And yet they tried to put the jigsaw back together, knowing that some pieces would be forever lost. And that the generations which would follow would never really understand.
My father was born in Frankville, a village beside Havre Boucher in Antigonish county, near Cape Breton. His father ran a general store, and the men of the family engaged in the desperate economy of that time, taking every part-time job that was came along, no matter how onerous. I have very few photographs of my young father, just one in fact: it shows a strong teenager looking for all the world like a youthful Elvis Presley. (I’ll post it if I can track it down). His smile is genuine, as though he saw promise in his strength and abilities.
But circumstances change, and the world went to war. In the 1940s, he joined the Canadian Army, and he trained locally before being sent overseas for additional training.
We have many photos showing a confident soldier — a private with a certain presence — flirting with nurses, chatting with friends. We have one telling photograph taken at the train station, before he left for Europe. It shows my mother looking on, adoringly.
I know little about his years in service, although I know he fought to liberate Holland.* And I know that he saw violence and death, that many in his unit were killed or maimed in desperate action. I know that he was considered a war hero, after single-handedly capturing six German soldiers who were firing on a small village, perhaps a hamlet not so different from the one in which he was raised.
And I know that he came home hardened and heavy with burdens. That his scars were never sutured properly, and that his wounds could reopen with just a little friction. I know that he felt a deep, deep pain beyond my ability to understand, though I have a glimpse of it now. A feeling of being damaged, and sometimes lost and alone.
He was a difficult man, opinionated and quick to anger. Was he always that way? Or did the taking of other lives destroy a piece of his own? What did it cost him to hold a friend close as he died? To see school chums cut down before they had the chance to return to the girls back home, and raise families. How much did it hurt to sit in the Havre Boucher church in 1946, seeing so many empty seats, knowing that he was one of the lucky ones, but feeling anything but lucky?
At his funeral, while I was still a teenager, I saw just wisps and shadows of another man whom I had never really known. I heard stories about how he was a real looker, so popular with the ladies, but that he was devoted to my mother. I heard that he was romantic, that he liked to buy small gifts and flowers for my Mom before he shipped overseas. I read through his war letters once, and thought I could see a kid trying to be a man, frightened that he would never see her again.
At his funeral, I also heard that he was as tough as nails. One story tells how he came upon a fight near the end of the war, with four men beating a large friend to a pulp because he had made the mistake of hitting on a married woman.
“Well, you made short work of the big one, let’s see what you can do with the little one…” he was reported to have said. At the end of the donnybrook, all four were laid out in lavender. He then carried his friend back to camp.
This was the man who came home, the father I knew. The softer man was left over there. True, he played with me when I was a wee lad, but as I grew older, I just saw him as someone who was always disappointed by his youngest son. His bursts of anger were frightening. He would never talk about his experiences, about his feelings, about why he was incapable of change. So I saw him as cold and distant.
But he sacrificed everything for us, in ways I can scarcely conceive. He held down two jobs when I was a kid, and worked his fingers raw at night and on weekends to transform our house into a home. It was endless. He never stopped. But he was a man’s man, and he hardly ever complained.
He never met the real me, never even saw the man I would become. I was 19 when he died; he was 58. I eventually came to understand that I had a great deal of his heart — of his inner strength — inside me.
Just a few months before he died, I noticed something that I had missed all of my life. At each family birthday party — I have six siblings, so there were many — we would all join in to sing a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to You. And there, with everyone distracted, a tear would fall from his eye, and down his cheek, only to be wiped away with a practiced hand. His last birthday celebration was my own.
And today, on his birthday, that’s the man I remember, the man I never met.
* While he was alive, the Dutch sent tulips to him every year, which he planted in front of the family home.