We have become accustomed to the term 'family unit'. It is a dry phrase, for when I reflect upon my own family, one word trumps this commonplace expression, and that word is 'legacy'. It is a legacy of a family, and a man I knew as 'Poppy'.
My mother's family are very close-knit, and would do anything for one another, and by extension, for anyone that can be considered family. I believe this is because of the values instilled in them by their parents. My grandfather and grandmother, Clyde and Edith Crews, were feisty Newfoundlanders, a rare and special breed of Canadian.
We, their grandchildren, knew my grandfather, quite fittingly given this subject matter, as Poppy. Poppy, as I knew him, was a gentle, soft-spoken man, who loved bear hugs and back scratches. He was a warm, kind, and genuine person, and the delight in his eyes was obvious when he saw family coming. When I was young, if he saw our car coming up his long driveway, he would lock the door, knowing that I would be the first one out of the car. Running excitedly to the door, I would knock, and he'd look through the little window and yell 'Go away, foreigner!' (they had since moved to Nova Scotia; we lived in the neighbouring province of New Brunswick), then, flinging the door wide, give me a giant hug.
As I got older, I started learning about World War II in school. At some point, we were given an assignment: To speak to a veteran about his time during the war. When I got home, my mother suggested I call Poppy. I found out he had served in the Navy. I called him, and he told me a story. At the end, he was quiet for a moment, and then he said 'That was the most scared I was, during the entire war.'
My mother doesn't remember, growing up, hearing stories about his service, because my grandmother didn't want her children to know of the horrors of war. Once grown, my grandfather would speak of it, albeit rarely, at times prompted by televised images of the war, or, quite simply, if he was asked about it.
Through the years, I've heard many stories about his service, from my mother, my aunts, and my uncles. Please forgive the scattered nature of the stories, I don't know them in chronological order:
Newfoundland, the province in which my grandparents were born and raised, did not join the Canadian Confederation until 1949. During the war, my grandfather signed up to fight for his country, a country to which he did not yet belong. His younger brother, my Great-Uncle Mickey, lied about his age and joined as well. Newfoundlanders (or Newfies as we now endearingly call them) were treated as the mud on every one's shoe, but, for the most part, they never complained, and followed orders - or at least they did on my grandfather's ship.
He served on the HMCS Haida, which served multiple functions - everything from convoy escort to full-blown warship - from 1943 through to the end of the war. My grandfather was a gunner. He once recounted to my mother that his and an Allied ship were sailing out on open water when a U-boat surprised them and fired on the ship closest to it, which was not the Haida. They managed to evacuate the Allied ship and sink the U-boat. They were not always so lucky.
Once, they came upon another Allied ship that had been fighting an enemy ship, but was at that point sinking. My grandfather said he could see the men from the ship bobbing in the waters of the Atlantic, and the Haida neared in an attempt to pick them up. They began drawing enemy fire, and had to pull out of the battle. They saved as many men as they could, which was not many. They were forced to retreat, leaving the vast majority of their brothers behind.
The story he recounted to me was what he described as being 'the most scared I was, during the entire war.' While fighting an enemy ship during a storm, firing at one another, huge waves were beating down on them, pounding the ship into the ocean. At some point during the fight, an enormous wave pushed the Haida high up in the air. He recounted that while they were technically still in the water, they were basically at a 90 degree angle to the ocean. They were completely exposed, and there was a 50-50 chance they'd land properly. The ship could have easily tilted the other way and landed upside down. When they landed bottom down, he said it was an ear-splitting booming noise that probably would have been louder had he not been so terrified. They won the battle.
The HMCS Haida sank more enemy surface tonnage during the war than any other Canadian warship. He was proud to have the honour of serving his country, and even as an elderly man, he could describe every detail of his ship. My parents gave him a framed photograph of the ship one year for Christmas, and it hung with a quiet dignity until he and my grandmother passed away and their house was sold. My parents now have the picture.
I can't begin to imagine the horrors he must have encountered during World War II, the stories no one ever heard. He fought with stoicism and pride. He fought for our freedom. He fought with honour.
After the war, he went on to marry my grandmother Edith, moved to the province of Nova Scotia, and had 14 children. My mother, the eighth child, can hardly remember a time he raised his voice (with one exception, funny, but not appropriate here). He contracted tuberculosis around 1956, and spent a year in a sanatorium. The doctors eventually removed a portion of his left lung. He worked at the docks in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to support his family, and support them he did. He raised a beautiful family, and each of his children can and do tell stories that highlight the great man he was.
When he passed away in January of 2008, he was survived by his wife, 14 children, 25 grandchildren, and 30 great-grandchildren, as well as a multitude of nieces and nephews. Those numbers have grown, and, if the world has luck on it's side, we will instill the same virtues of kindness, gentleness, generosity, and all of his wonderful traits, all the things that made him such a wonderful man, into our children as he instilled in his, who in turn instilled into us. This is his legacy.
He was my hero.