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An uncle's wartime writings put my existential dissatisfaction in its place

Philip Cheung

In 1943, my uncle wrote the following:

A Lament

Why didn't I wait to be drafted: To be led to the train by a band? Why didn't I wait for the banquet? Oh why did I hold up my hand? For nobody gave me a banquet, and nobody said a kind word; The grind of the wheels and the engine were the only sounds that I heard. Off to the camp I was hustled, to be trained for half a year; In the shuffle, quite forgotten, I was just a volunteer. We have given the others our billets, while we roasted alive in a tent: We cleaned up a dozen parade grounds, for the fellows who were only sent. Then came the National Army, then it was all made clear, The glory goes to the drafted, the work to the volunteer. I waded in mud in Canada, I froze in Canada's cold, I walked my beat in the moonlight, in this army I'm growing old. I dreamed of the time that was coming, when over the top I would go, I dreamed of the far-off dangers, of that bloody field of hate; I went over the top, by a bullet was stopped, then knocked on the Pearly Gate. I heard St. Peter saying: "We have no room here, We've reserved this for the National Army, Hell was made for the Volunteer." Maybe some day in the future, when my boy sits on my knee And asks what I did in the conflict, his eager eyes looking at me, I'll have to look back as I'm blushing, into the eyes that so trustingly peer. And tell him that I missed being drafted, I was only a volunteer.

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Shortly thereafter, the volunteer, Lieutenant Norman Christopherson, went with his regiment to England and, months after that, to France, where he died on Aug. 10, 1944, at the Falaise Gap. His obituary from the Sept. 22, 1944, Toronto Daily Star (on a page teeming with paragraphs devoted to the dead and missing from "Greater Toronto and Nearby Centres") describes him as "prominent at both Osgoode Hall and Victoria College by reason of his literary interests."

I have discovered his literary interests. Earlier this year, in a fit of existential dissatisfaction, I decided to do something constructive: I typed up my uncle's letters from the war as well as his poems and plays (including one based on Nordic mythology, in a nod to Norway, his birth country), and I bought protective coverings for them as well. (When I'm constructive, I go all out.)

Two years ago, my mother gave me an envelope full of her brother's writings – frayed (although still remarkably readable) pages and booklets and letters stamped by the war censor. She chose me, I think, because I was the one who found my uncle's grave. My mother's family reacted to his death in that wonderfully Lutheran "let's pretend the awful thing that happened didn't happen" way. They never went to France to see where he was buried. They didn't mark anniversaries.

When I studied in Paris, I contacted the Ministère de la Défense and, boom (forget French shrugging and bureaucracy), within days, I had the name of a Canadian war cemetery and the exact location of my uncle's grave. I visited and, while clichés abound in these moments, it must be noted that the pouty and cynical French yielded to the generous and humble. In Normandy, all I had to do was tell someone why I was there, and the mask formed from years of Gauloises and Euro-contempt slipped. I was not surprised in 2009 when, at the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the best speech far and away from a world leader was given by Nicolas Sarkozy.

Of my uncle's writing in general, what struck me was this: no spelling errors, not a comma out of place and an impressive vocabulary. English was not his first language and, although it's mine, I had to look up some of the words he used. Of his letters, what struck me was the attempt to appear cheerful – numerous references to getting "fat" in the army, and descriptions of his days that made it sound as though he were a tourist. There is only one letter that refers to a brush with death – he was almost felled by a Buzz Bomb – and the resulting fear.

His last letter – written two weeks to the day before he died – is a description of the various card games he and his fellow soldiers played when not shooting or being shot at. Knowing his family wouldn't approve, he points out that "life itself is a gamble, and one in which we all partake." The last line of the letter reads: "In the course of four days, I won 1,000 francs and lost 1,400. All in all, worth it."

It's almost too painful. It certainly puts my existential dissatisfaction in its place.

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Rondi Adamson is a Toronto writer.

Editor's note: The poem included in this article on Friday is a variant upon an American poem of uncertain authorship, first known to have been published in 1917. It was not written by Lieutenant Norman Christopherson.

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