I’ve always thought the lakefront of my town of Barrie was beautiful, but this autumn it’s looking even better. Just ahead of Remembrance Week, the city (in partnership with nearby Canadian Forces Base Borden) opened its first Military Heritage Park. The park occupies a stretch of prime waterfront land and puts it to unparalleled use. As you will see from the following photographs, it’s a military park like no other– using symbols and images of wars past rather than military hardware to make an impression.
My mum and I (and dog) braved what was a rainy and unpleasant day to see the newly-opened park
A view across Kempenfelt Bay, with a section of sand reminiscent of perhaps the Normandy beaches in the foreground
Although not the largest city, Barrie has quite a rich military history. A reserve regiment, the Grey & Simcoe Foresters, is located in town; and the aforementioned Base Borden is only about twenty minutes away. Many residents of Barrie have fought historically for Canada. Most recently, a 24-year old graduate of a high school within view of my house was killed by an IED in Afghanistan.
Barrie was one of the communities chosen as a ship’s namesake in World War II. The connection really is a local one… the HMCS Barrie was laid down in a shipyard barely forty minutes’ drive from Barrie
The Military Heritage Park does a splendid job of drawing on Barrie’s wartime heritage and Canada’s as a whole. There are no aircraft or military vehicles staring you down as you walk through the park; the approach is much more subtle. And as much as I love traditional gate guardians, I’m really glad that the planners chose the design they did.
Continuing on past the sandy areas, visitors will pass a row of new oak trees beside a series of gardens. Although at first sight these appear to be simply a complement to the landscape, like many things in the park they hold something deeper. These oaks are born from a handful of acorns brought back by an Ontario soldier who fought in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. They are Vimy Oaks.
Amazing that these flourishing trees are descended from a landscape decimated by war
Alongside the Vimy Oaks there are three gardens. Each has a special significance; for example, one references Canada’s role in the liberation of Holland in the Second World War through its plethora of tulips. Each garden also features a large etched metal sculpture, cementing the theme of each one.
The bed of tulips; grim in the month of November, but poignant nonetheless
A memorial commemorating Canada’s recipients of the Victoria Cross through all conflicts up to World War II
The Military Heritage Park, while celebrating hometown heritage, also keeps its eye on the country as a whole. In the middle of the park stands a simple obelisk bearing the names of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients. The Victoria Cross is the highest honour awarded for bravery in the UK, and in Canada as well.
I was surprised to learn that there were so many recipients of the Victoria Cross, being that it is such a high honour
The obelisk is a sharp and resolute object amidst the changeable lawns and gardens of the park
For me, the park’s greatest triumph is the section dedicated to the trench warfare of World War I. A small area of ground has been dug up into troughs and craters; recalling the enormous craters and holes that scarred France and Belgium from 1914-1918 and which indeed remain in places to this day.
The scene is barren and grim and very effective in bringing to mind the battlefields of World War I
A near-full view of the park; craters in foreground, then the interpretive gardens and city skyline beyond
As you’ve seen from this post and as I learned from my visit, Barrie’s Military Heritage Park is unlike any other. It is a place of peace and solemn symbolism; and although it’s in the very middle of the city, it feels like a world all its own. It feels how I imagine the military cemeteries in France feel. Secluded, but not lonely. Old, but not forgotten. It accomplishes all it should, by encouraging introspection in its visitors and thereby kindling true remembrance.
The park is a long-awaited addition to Barrie (having been announced a decade ago), and it was well worth the wait.
Lest we forget.
It seems I am long overdue to post some poetry! Unfortunately working hard at a job equates to slacking in other areas; and I haven’t written any poetry in a long time. But today that changes! I hope you all appreciate the following effort. Like all my work, it is nothing if not heartfelt; and it speaks of the rich and varied emotions we cannot help but experience as human beings. Enjoy.
The Curse of the Heart
I swear that I have never felt
More a curse than the human heart
When there are trials and passions spelt
It is no more whole but torn apart;
And filled with a raging ocean tide
Of fear and love most unconstrained
The wild wash dashes the calm inside
The heart does face to the storm in vain
But face it, it does, so resolute–
The human heart, a soul acute.
© Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2017
It’s terrible to think that I’ve had such a hiatus from blogging here! I do apologise to all my followers, and thank you all for sticking with me. The past few months have been consumed by endless work, but honestly I’m not complaining– I’ve found a job which I really love, which is bettered by awesome people who keep me laughing and enrich my life, and which teaches me every single day.
But enough about that– on to this long overdue post! This poem is written in the context of (guess when…) World War II; but it was inspired by the struggles of life which I’ve observed in both myself and in friends of mine. It speaks to the stoicism of the human spirit, and in doing so I think it preaches a message of hope– that even when things are full of despair, we still find a way to carry on and reach something better. I hope you enjoy it.
The Soldier that Endured
Walking on the Tula road
A weary figure passed me by
Her steps were slow, but still they showed
The burning of her pride.
Her rifle held in one hand,
The other hand fell low
Crimson and scarred, Red as our Star
Which endures from long ago.
I watched her labour on at length
Her back hunched and tired
Weak but still bearing agony with strength,
A strength to be admired.
Her face was young, yet bore pain
Of years it had not seen
Its naivety had waxed and waned, but grit remained
In all the hours between.
As she passed, I spoke to her
And asked how she prevailed
The blood and gore that mauled and tore
Our hearts until we failed–
With startling eyes she said,
“There were hours I could not survive
And all through my head I believed I was dead
Until I breathed and was alive.”
Then she was gone, that soldier brave
And I pondered quietly
After all the battles through which I slaved,
Perhaps that soldier was me.
Stalin’s city was always a wonderful place to live. It was large and modern; with many factories supporting the industry of our Soviet Union. There were squares where we children played, and many shops and institutes where the adults worked. It was a city for the people, and all of us who lived there felt very glad that we did.
By autumn 1942 though, our beloved city was no longer where any civilian wanted to be. I guess when the fascists failed to take the capital, they set their iron hearts on another prize. Stalingrad must have been an easy choice. At any rate, they reached our doorstep and encroached into the surrounding villages; and that soon turned into streetfighting in the heart of Stalingrad itself. It was a dreadful situation; but my mother was resolute. My father and brother were out fighting the Germans, and we were going to stay here for them. The Germans will never take Stalingrad, she said, and we must give those boys a good home to come back to.
So we stayed, and we got accustomed to the sight of soldiers in the streets, and of tanks on the square. We weren’t even bothered by the gunshots after awhile, because there were always gunshots coming from somewhere. I guess we got used to the war, but what bothered me was that I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to help, but I was too young to do anything great. When our friends’ apartment in the next street was bombed, we took them in, and I shared my room with all three of their children. But it felt like it didn’t matter; because although they were warm and sheltered, we could still smell the smoke as their home and belongings burned. Even though we did the best we could, the war was evil and it kept coming on and on despite our courage and our efforts.
Life got a lot harder when winter arrived. The Germans were everywhere but so were our troops; and there were so many men about and so much destruction that food became less and less. Sometimes supply shipments made it, but more often than not they didn’t, and the ration centres had nothing to give us. As a young woman with the hope of marriage and a household ahead of me, I put my efforts toward creating palatable meals out of whatever food was available. I got pretty good at it, but we were still always hungry.
It was tough, but life in a combat centre does make for some extraordinary stories. One day before the streetfighting got really bad in our neighbourhood, a sniper from the Caucasus and his spotter set up in our front room. They were there for the whole afternoon, watching the street and the square beyond; and every few hours my mother sent me to them with a mug of tea. Another time, a German bomber crash-landed into the square and its crew was captured. When the city was quiet, the local kids used it as a jungle gym until it was smashed by shelling a few weeks later.
I think about these stories a lot, because they were a break from the hopelessness. We were trapped in our own city as it was broken down around us, and nothing seemed to change from day to day. Just more bombs and more bodies in the street. Anything different to that is what I try to remember, but nothing bests the story of the soldier at the door. It was December I think, and mother was in bed with pneumonia. Since I was freshly eighteen at that time, she entrusted the household and all its duties to me. That meant I undertook the weekly trek through the rubble to the ration centre; which wasn’t easy all the time, but which made me feel like I was accomplishing something every time I made it back.
On the day in question, I couldn’t leave the apartment until mid-morning because the neighbourhood was chattering with gunfire. But eventually I deemed it quiet enough that I gathered the kitchen-basket, wrapped a shawl around my head, and went downstairs. Stepping outside, I was taken aback to find a soldier lying on the doorstep. At first, I thought he was dead, because he was slumping awkwardly against the wall and was barely off the snowy street. But then he turned to see me, and attempted to make way for me. His eyes were kind and he looked tired, so I thought it alright to talk to him.
“Don’t trouble yourself,” I said, pausing opposite as I looked him over. “You seem tired.” The soldier was wearing a green greatcoat stained with old blood, and was cradling a submachine gun. At that time, I’d never had a boyfriend, but this soldier seemed like the type for me. He had kind eyes and a ready smile and I immediately wanted to help him. He was indeed handsome, but he didn’t seem very well. I judged that he was at most a half-dozen years older than me, but his face had a weathered look to it which was unexpected. Not only his face was haggard, but he had a bright red stain of blood on his far shoulder, too. I guess he was a frontovik.
The soldier sighed, but smiled. “Thanks. I’ve just stopped here to catch my breath.”
“I’m not sure you’ve picked the safest place,” I told him. “A shell came through a window downstairs yesterday. The old man who lives there says it knocked a jug of water right off the kitchen table.”
Laughing, the soldier tentatively pulled himself further onto the doorstep. “Where isn’t that happening? Don’t say that to my guys, though. We’ll stop the shelling soon enough.”
I hoped he was right and not just trying to seem brave. “You’re bleeding,” I observed. “How badly are you wounded?”
“It’s only shrapnel. I’ll be alright.”
“Why don’t you come inside? It’s cold out, and you’ll be safer there.”
The soldier shook his head but looked at me graciously. “I’d better stay out here. A medic will be by to pick me up soon, I’m sure of it.”
Surveying the empty, lifeless street, I disagreed. “Well, I’m not sure of it. There’s no one about. You might bleed to death!” And I tore the scarf from my head to use as a bandage for his wound, but he gently pushed it away.
“That’s too pretty a scarf to use for blood,” he said. “And weren’t you going on an errand?”
“Not if I can help you,” I replied resolutely.
He laughed quietly and gazed out at the street. “You shouldn’t worry. You go, and I’ll stay here. I bet your apartment’s never had an armed guard before.” I felt bad leaving him. I was sure his condition was worse than he let on, I’m sure he was trying to seem brave. I wanted to make some kind of difference, but he insisted. “Where are you going, anyway?”
“The rationing centre. It’s just at the other end of Bogunskaya.”
“Don’t take Bogunskaya,” the soldier turned grave. “There’s a sniper installed out there, and he shoots at anyone.”
“Well, thanks,” I said, still not wanting to leave. “You’ll be sure to look after yourself, won’t you?”
“I will, you have my word on it.” The soldier nodded. “I’m sure a medic will be by very soon.”
Begrudgingly, I took my leave of him and set off through the snowy city. The streets remained quiet but I had to wait for an hour at the rations centre. And despite the quiet, I knew the enemy was still there. And I wondered about the soldier at the door– was he still there, or had someone come for him? Why wouldn’t he let me help him? I guess, as a soldier, he had to remain on guard for our city, but I wish he could have gotten some treatment someplace.
As I came back within a few blocks of the apartment, I began to feel nervous about what I might find on the doorstep. Turning onto the street, I saw the soldier’s figure still slumped there. Was he dead? I felt a mixture of relief and concern when he gave me a jaunty wave.
“Where are the medics?” I asked him as soon as I approached.
“Someone will be along soon,” replied the soldier, but his voice was more weary now.
Unsatisfied, I looked down at the basket of food in my arms. “Are you hungry?”
The soldier laughed with a ready smile. “Are you?”
“I’ve only been hungry since winter started,” I said. “Will you have some bread?” The soldier stayed silent, but his eyes and his face were tired and hungry. “What’s your name?” I asked. “I’m Marina.” And I started to divide up my ration of bread.
“I’m Nikolai.” Nikolai was slow to accept any bread, but once he did he ate it ravenously.
“I guess you are hungry,” I remarked woefully.
“Of course I am. But it’ll all get better soon. We’re keeping the Volga open for new shipments of food and supplies, and the enemy will soon be starved and beaten.”
“And do you still think a medic will come for you?”
“It’s only a matter of time.” Nikolai smiled, although his face was weary.
It would have been nice to share his confidence, or his bravado. I sighed, looking out at the snowy rubble-strewn street and pondering the sounds of guns in the air. Unconvinced, I turned back to him. “But how much time have you got?”
Finally he had no response. He sighed too, and his smile turned sad as he adjusted his grip on his gun. He looked broken and tired, yes, but only in his face. The posture of his bloodied shoulders and the precise, ready grip he kept on that gun told me that he’d made his mind up. And yet I still wanted to help him– I’d been fruitlessly just existing for the past few months, and now the chance to do something was sitting on my doorstep.
“Please, Nikolai,” I said desperately. “At least come inside to get warm. You’re not doing any good out here in your state! Won’t you just come inside?” I already knew the answer of course; but I had to ask him.
His laugh was hollow as he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Marina. I can’t leave my post. I have to stay here.”
“That’s alright,” I said. “I know you’re a soldier.”
We were quiet for a moment, and the atmosphere was one of regret. Then he spoke up. “Those guns are getting closer. You should go inside before you get hit.”
I smiled and nodded, but I was unable to reply… since I was leaving him, he was probably going to die. It just didn’t sit well with me. I turned to go, but Nikolai caught the handle of the kitchen-basket and stopped me. Looking at me with earnest brown eyes, he announced, “You were good to me, Marina. Kindness can make a big difference.”
That heartened me, and I was able to reply. “You make sure the medics take good care of you. You know I would have.”
“And you get inside, and stay there until this skirmish passes! Do that, and we might even see each other again.”
I left Nikolai sitting half-slumped on the doorstep, exactly as I had found him. But I hoped that I had made a difference to him as he’d said.
The next morning, the gunfire had quietened down and I rushed downstairs to the doorstep. I felt sick with worry over Nikolai; I wanted him to be there, but I didn’t want him to be dead. But there was nothing on the doorstep; nothing except a pool of dried blood where Nikolai had been. There was no one in the street, and I asked all the neighbours and nearby soldiers if they’d seen anything, but nobody had. My mother said that somebody must have come for him after all, because if he’d died then his body would probably still be on the doorstep. I hoped she was right, but I could never know.
After meeting Nikolai, I decided to join the medical corps in the Red Army. It was there that I met my first boyfriend, who in time became my husband. There I tended by chance to my brother, who had been severely wounded by shrapnel near Voronezh. By a miracle, he, my parents, and my husband all survived the war. We did some good work in the medical corps, and I finally felt that what I was doing mattered.
As for Nikolai, I can’t be sure that he survived that night, let alone the whole war. But there is one funny little event which makes me wonder. It was July 1945, after Victory Day, and Stalingrad was rebuilding. There were soldiers out and about to help and oversee the efforts, and I had returned home to visit my family. Walking along Bogunskaya, I had my floral shawl over my head to protect me from the sun. There was a convoy of army trucks crossing the street about 75 yards ahead; each truck packed full of soldiers hanging on like barnacles.
Well, one of those soldiers shouted my name and gave me a jaunty wave. He was too far away to recognise, and then he was gone, but not before I managed to wave back… And I do believe it was Nikolai, I always have. He was right after all. They did come for him, and we did see each other again. I might not have had much of a war, or a life, if I hadn’t met him. It’s been an encouraging thought all these years that, whether he lived or died, I made a difference to that soldier at the door.
© Adair E. R. Jacobs 2017