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first person

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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

“Dad, when you were dying, did you ever see bright lights or have an out-of-body experience, looking down at yourself?”

Dad did not look at me but stared straight ahead. My father, George Murray, was a D-Day veteran and had fought the elite SS in Normandy. He was wounded, but after recovery, he decided to rejoin his regiment and continue the fight into Holland and Germany.

But first, George was a gifted baseball player. In 1939, he signed with Cleveland and played double “A” baseball in the United States. When the Second World War broke out, he returned to Canada and volunteered to fight. He joined the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) out of London, Ont., and did his basic training at Camp Borden.

Since the army was trying to fill out all the regiments, they asked for volunteers to join the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, based in Galt and Kitchener. He and some of his friends volunteered. I asked why, and he looked at me and said, “We thought we would get into the action faster.”

When I was young, I remember sitting beside him on the couch picking small pieces of grenade shrapnel out of his leg. My mother, a nurse, explained to me that foreign objects would often work their way out of a human body. But that is not the real story I want to tell.

After rejoining his regiment in Holland, he continued to lead the fight. He was a sergeant and was called “Slugger” because of the way he could hit a baseball and the way he could box. I asked him what it was like to be in battle and he said, “I could not believe how noisy it was.” And then he said: “One time I jumped into a trench and came face to face with a German officer.”

“What happened?!” I asked.

My father stared at me: “I’m here, ain’t I?”

When he was fighting in Holland, he found that he could not keep up with soldiers that he used to be able to march into the ground. He knew something was wrong and went to the medical officer. They thought that he was “swinging the lead,” which meant trying to get out of front-line duty.

The doctors were going to send him back into battle, but he threatened to shoot someone until he got an X-ray. My father got the X-ray. He was in a ward with about 15 other patients but he noticed orderlies moving every patient out except him. That’s how he knew it was pretty bad.

My father had contracted tuberculosis and had a hole in his lung about the size of a quarter. They sent him back to Canada on a hospital ship. I know the date – April 12, 1945 – because he told me, “they announced over the ship that President Roosevelt had died.”

He spent the next eight years or so in and out of the sanitorium in London, Ont. He had several operations and they collapsed one of his lungs to stop the spread of the TB bacteria. I remember the scars on his back where the doctors made the incision to operate. He would function the rest of his life with one lung. He would never work again.

I really did not know my dad for the first eight years of my life. He was a guy who came home one Sunday every two months or so. My siblings and I used to fight to see who would sit beside him at supper. Every three months my brothers and sister and me had to be tested for TB.

In Grade 3, I was coming home from school for lunch and an ambulance was leaving my house. I nearly got into a fight with some of the neighbourhood children who told me my mother was crying. I walked into the house and looked into my parent’s bedroom and saw blood all over the walls. My dad had hemorrhaged from his good lung. In the following months he had the last rites numerous times.

My father wouldn’t die until the age of 72 and he left a family of six children and 13 grandchildren. But it’s a conversation we had while I was in university that still haunts me.

I remember picking him up from the Legion one day, and that’s when I asked: “When you were dying, did you ever see bright lights or have an out-of-body experience, looking down at yourself?”

He stared straight ahead and said, “No, I never did. But the walls would melt in front of my eyes and I would fight the bayonet charges again. I would look out the window and see the flares in the night sky.”

He was silent for a few moments, “I dream sometimes and see my friends who were killed and they are waiting for me to come.”

I was stunned and did not know what to say.

Joe Murray lives in London, Ont.

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