In over 25 years of being as a newspaper and magazine editor, I have frequently been given the opportunity to write about what the date November 11 means to me. As a journalist, I suppose I can provide a reasonably unique perspective given that I am also a veteran.
Honestly, I do not like that term “unique” so much. Especially when it comes to the topic of service to our country. There’s nothing very unique about me other than my DNA. I am just one man who wore the uniform of this great nation. Hundreds of thousands came before me, roughly 80,000 served with me, and plenty more will arrive after I’m gone. Notwithstanding, I will attempt to tell you a bit about that powerful bond we share — the ones I served with, the ones I never met, those who serve today, and the ones who will come later. We are all family. Club members.
My name is Jeff Vircoe. I served as a regular member of the Canadian Armed Forces for nine years from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s. “Regular” means that I was not a reserve member. No, this was my career all day, every day for just about nine years. I joined at the Rue St. Catherine and Bishop Street recruiting centre in downtown Montreal on November 26, 1976. That day I was a 17 year-old kid. I did not march into the recruitment centre, oh no. In fact, I had spent the previous year taking on and walking away from odd jobs in restaurants and factories. I was a Grade 9 drop out, a Rolling Stones-or-bust, drugs and alcohol specialist with a bad attitude and very few good intentions.
That blustery fall day of 1976, I had taken the bus downtown in search of a job at the snarly, sharp urging of my mother. I was also checking in on my best stoner friend David, who was “studying” hair styling of all things at a no-name school a few blocks up from the CAF recruiting office. I stopped in to say hi to David every now and then, not because I was an especially caring friend. Mostly it was to get a look at his incredibly good looking fellow students. Many of our pals teased David for not being too bright, but checking out the girls he was surrounding himself with for a year long course, I knew he was way ahead of his time.
After seeing David, followed by an hour of pinball at an arcade across from his school, somehow I was drawn into that cold and stoic, clean, official looking grey stone building. The one with the bright florescent lights and Canadian flags prominently perched in the corners. Today I see it as a moment of providence, just as one is somehow how drawn to look over a cliff’s edge when hiking in the mountains. You just can’t not look over there.
Behind the long counters a few men in uniform exchanged glances and smiled politely when I sauntered in. I was in scruffy Lee jeans and sneakers, and an even scruffier jean jacket. My stringy hair was past well my shoulders. I was pimply. I was 5 foot 11 and weighed a spry 130 pounds. My blue eyes were way more sunken and suspicious than cool and mysterious. My thumbs were classically hooked into my pockets, putting forth a superbly lame effort at cool. I was hungover. What a catch.
I fell over the edge. Somehow over then next two days I was sweet talked into writing a series of aptitude tests and as fast as you could say Lynyrd Skynyrd, I was signing on — pending the approval of my mother. I brought the papers home and handed them to my mom. Check these out maw. Moments later I saw her cry for the first time from relief, not sadness or anger. It was also the first time I saw her proud of me. Rebellious, I hadn’t exactly been the best of children the past four or five years. Her blue eyes would never look at me with disappointment again.
I was given exactly seven days to get my affairs in order before I needed to present myself at CFB Cornwallis, Nova Scotia for the 11 weeks of Basic Training I needed to survive. That week zipped by like a high speed silent movie. I said my goodbyes to my friends, many of whom thought I was crazy, kidding that I would fail boot camp within days and be back to drinking frosty quarts of Brador in those Park Avenue brasseries, or rolling joints in dusty Outremont basements before Christmas. I can’t say I blamed them for doubting me. I was not exactly a profile in courage or strength.
However, not everyone snickered at my latest career move. My mother and step father gushed with pride for me. On the home front I could do no wrong for those seven days. My step dad even pushed a $20 into my hand to “have some fun for the week” — more than I had received from any parental figure to that point in my worldly 17 year career as an alleged human. We even drank together that week for the first time. “You’re old enough to die for your country, you’re old enough to drink!” was their credo. And I was in the club. Their club. And I’m still in.
I’d never really noticed before that week, but I learned quickly how the military was in my blood. My biological father Eric Vircoe was part of a bomber crew in the Australian Air Force. My mother served as a clerk in the Canadian Air Force after the war. Her dad’s kid brother Nathaniel Crane was one of the first 500 members of the Royal Newfound Regiment. Most of them were wiped out. On April 14, 1917, it was his turn. His name is etched in a cemetery at Monchy-le-Preux France. He was 21. My step father? Well he was a Second World War motorcyclist in the Canadian Army. Black Watch. PPCLI. Plucked off a beach at Dieppe. Very bad ass indeed. When I joined both my parental figures were holding service positions in a Royal Canadian Legion. They were veterans. Their relatives were veterans. Their friends were veterans. Their club.
So by the time I let my hairdresser pal David give me a pre-Boot Camp hair cut, I was starting to realize I had just joined a club with a rich history. I had first seen members of that club when as a boy, my mom would drag me out to the cenotaph every November 11. I recall those First World War veterans in their wheel chairs, faces solemn, skin grey, eyes watery as the bugler’s Last Post would pierce the cold air. I was rolling my eyes most of the time. I didn’t get it. Why were we coming out here and freezing our asses off? We don’t even know these guys, I would whine to myself. But when I joined their club by signing on the dotted line in November 1976, my attitude changed very fast. It had to. I could no longer pretend that my Canadian entitlement to fast cars, unemployment insurance and freedom of speech had somehow just somehow magically appeared. Club members before me had their fingerprints all over those entitlements I clung to as my rights.
Cornwallis 7651. The winter was especially harsh in the maritimes that year. I got my ass properly kicked. In Basic Training I learned about commitment. Discipline. History. This club I was trying to join? They simply would not accept me unless I could wrap my black-hash-infested-head around the concept that war is a part of Canada. Period. We actually came of age as a nation in the trenches and gas attacks of the First World War. How what those Canadians did at Vimy Ridge and other battlefields solidified our place on the world stage as a group of people not to be dismissed. The reputation they built for us remains to this day. We were warriors long before (and for a much lengthier period) than we were peace keepers. Give your head a shake.
And by the way? If I couldn’t get my sorry ass up that hill, over that obstacle course with a full back pack, and FNC1 rifle cradled in my scrawny arms, and with my gasmask fogging up my vision, I wasn’t welcome in this club. So move it.
And so move it I did. We started with 150. I was one of the 75 who earned my hat badge and graduated March 3, 1977.
Welcome to the club, son.
Time went by. Over nine years I earned my membership in this club. My time was a Cold War but it seemed pretty heated to me. As Ronald Reagan called out Leonid Brezhnev’s empire as evil, in two stints for six years I sailed on war ships teeming with weapons. We joined Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and Yanks in keeping the Warsaw Pact and China from getting overly aggressive in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan, even off the coast of Vancouver Island. We regularly played chicken with unfriendly subs and guided missile cruisers, some of them nuked up to the hilt all over the Pacific. With the Canadian flag proudly flapping against the wind, we entered and left harbors and pockets of ocean synonymous with war. The Coral Sea. Pearl Harbor. Iron Bottom Sound. Manila. Sinapore. Guam. Nagasaki. Hong Kong, a sacred place for our members, where 228 Canadians are buried. Club members with families. Children. Grand children. Great grand children. They remember.
While keeping the peace, on these deployments we still lost men at sea now and then. Young friends. Brothers. No, not to bullets. To “accidents” — peace-time forms of friendly fire I suppose. At home and abroad, on deployments and on leave, some folks couldn’t handle things too well. Suicides were regular occurrences. Me? I think of Randy. Duke. Steve. Vance. Eric. I remember.
I also served three years on a major base that trained many of our soldiers, airmen and women for action in several conflicts to come. They served in many hot spots. They wore blue berets. They wore green berets. They wore those beautiful maroon berets in places like Somalia. The Golan Heights. Cypress. Bosnia. Rwanda. Some of our Commonwealth brothers and sisters fought in the Falklands, engineers and rangers who crossed our paths as we supported and trained them. And all of this was in supposed peace time.
In the summer of 1985 my own war within my tortured mind led me to request a release out of the club membership for good. Or so I thought. I washed ashore in Calgary. I was all of 26 years old but felt like an old man. A fish out of water, lost and dangerous to myself for six months I spiraled until I found a reprieve in another club of sorts. A group of warriors who had been stuck and trapped in their own places of darkness and despair. I asked for help, joined them in their meetings, and have not found it necessary to indulge in mood altering drugs or alcohol since. I am still in step with them.
Though it has been 30 years since I received my honorable discharge, not a day goes by when I don’t catch myself in some situation which reminds me I served. I have some sort of killer instinct I suppose, an intensity which seems ever-capable of rapid ignition. I am not proud of it. It scares me. It comes from stuffing feelings and living in a constant assessment of any situation for danger around me. My friends tell me just I think too much. I believe they are right.
Sometimes this intensity leaves me shaking my head at a protester who marches, pickets or posts some social media comment about some grievance they could never complain about in many if not most nations on earth. Sometimes these feelings deploy rapidly, internally when I see disrespect shown to an elderly person or a child. Sometimes they flare when I see the price of gas rise as the oil barrel price drops. I seethe in the knowledge that the true powers of this modern world are corporations, not countries. They have weapons we seemingly cannot win against. And I get frustrated by those who think because we might lay down our weapons everyone else will just do the same. That’s not what our earlier club members experienced.
It is November 2015. I see the poppies now and as usual, I am quiet inside. I breathe a little shallower. Walk a little slower. Stay a little less visible. My club membership is not something I need to wave around but it needs to be displayed with a tad more dignity, grace and honor in this the 11th month.
And I know Canadians want to nod at our members. They want to say thank you. They want to try to understand. Some of us in the club have a hard time with that. I am one of those. It is hard to explain. Suffice to say pats on the back were not what we were after when we served. But I step up, and I will go to the cenotaph next week. I always do. This time with my beautiful partner and her daughter. They have veterans in their extended family also, some of them still serving. The current club members face an much more dangerous time than me and my peers did.
Those close to club members know they don’t need to make a big shiny deal about November 11, just a little respect will do. And so on Wednesday at the cenotaph in Parksville, my hometown now, I will nod at the Second World War and Korean conflict vets in their diminished numbers, in their wheel chairs, their faces solemn, their skin grey, their eyes watery as the bugler’s Last Post pierces the air. And I will look around and pick out the Bosnia vets. The Rwanda vets. The Afghanistan vets. They are younger but every bit as scarred. Every bit as honorable.
And of course I haven’t rolled my eyes at a cenotaph since November 1976. Club members just don’t do that — unless a politician or religious trumpeter gets carried away at a microphone. They may mean well but this is not the time or place to explain their rationale for sending people to war, for waxing on about how they are helping our vets, or saving their souls. Then again, maybe it is exactly the place. Either way I won’t hear them. I’m lost in my own thoughts that day.
My Australian Air Force veteran father is gone. My Canadian Army step father is gone, too. My veteran mother is gone in her own way, thanks to the ravages of dementia. But her son is present and will stand at attention for the Last Post next week. That’s all part of being in the club. It’s like the mafia I suppose. Once you’re in you never really get out. But one family has honor.
As the wind blows and the plane flies overhead, I will be grateful for my journey to this place, for the hundreds who will surround our club members at our little cenotaph, welcoming us home again, saying thank you. We don’t need much. Your eyes and your silence when that bugler does his or her thing is all we ask.
And as for me, I’ve taken enough of your time. Just know that all these years later I remain a proud member of the club. I am glad to have served you. You are so worth it.