On Nov. 11 I think about my father, war and machine guns. You see, my father knew machine guns. When I was a child I would sit with my father in our den watching "Combat" or "The Gallant Men" and on the screen, in black and white, the U.S. Army soldiers would be firing away with long continuous blasts as the Germans fell before them. My father would laugh and point out again how machine guns didn't work that way: if fired like that they would over-heat and explode. In real combat they were fired in short bursts. My father knew machine guns.
During World War II my father was a lieutenant in the Canadian Army, in the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, a machine gun regiment which fought from D-Day and the battles following it in Normandy, Belgium and Holland. He never really talked about this much but he kept gun operation manuals in the basement. I eventually learned that he had fought in some of the heaviest fighting on the Western front. He didn't tell his children about that, he only told us the funny stories.
But my father didn't think that war was funny. My father for a long time would not let me have a toy gun. Guns were not toys, they killed people.
Growing up in Canada on every Nov. 11th at 11 a.m., Remembrance Day, when the guns fell silent in 1918, everyone stopped what they were doing for a moment of silence. We bought plastic poppies from army veterans and we learned the poem "In Flanders Fields."
My father was born in 1913 the fourth of seven children. My grandfather had been forced to serve in the Czar's army in the Russo-Japanese War and had hated it so much he never spoke of his experience his entire life. He came to Toronto in 1905 having apparently deserted the army.
My father grew up in the Depression. He had to work his way through university and graduated as a chemical engineer but being Jewish he could not find a job. He had also been a Boy Scout, even reaching the highest level. But to my knowledge he never fired a gun until he joined the army, became an officer and ended up in the Camerons, with a kilt for a dress uniform.
My father thought the war was one of the worst times of his life. He had volunteered to fight (until late in the War, the Canadian army was and all volunteer force). He and my mother met before the war and courted during it by mail throughout the entire war. We still have his letters which are full of news about family, friends, affection and reflections on the war. When he was about to shipped overseas in January 1943 he wrote:
It is rather difficult to put in writing all the things that go racing through your mind now that the time has come for me to leave. I guess it is like an unfinished symphony, so much to be done, the finish depends upon so many future factors.
Please don't feel too badly, it is just fate. I am just a little pawn in a gigantic game. A serious game but very necessary in such troubled times. Perhaps I can add my little bit to bring back peace and happiness to our lives and to countless thousands. Our individual heartbreaks and sorrows are small in comparison to the world in general...
We have an old home movie taken on his last leave home at my grandparents' summer cottage, just before he was sent over. My cousin Sheila, only about five, marches around for the camera in my father's hat. Everyone is smiling. But he didn't tell my grandparents that he was being shipped overseas and he couldn't even face writing them. He had my mother tell them.
My father never told us about being in a battle. He did tell us how he narrowly escaped death in Holland when his amphibious vehicle missed being blown up by a floating mine. The one ahead of him was hit. Or when an artillery barrage took out his jeep while he was standing beside it and at the last second he jumped on top of his driver in a trench. There was no pride in the telling; just a kind of scared awe.
He would rather tell us the story of the salami my mother sent him or how the cook in his unit was so glad to be transferred from a unit where the men would ask for fired eggs to be put onto their bare hands. We would laugh; it was like the summer camp stories I used to tell my daughters. He never told us what it was like to kill people and I never thought of my father as a killer.
He hated the false glory attributed to the war in popular culture. When "The Longest Day" was on TV he would point out how wrong it was and how there were no Canadians in it. He had landed the third morning after D-Day on Juno beach when the outcome was still uncertain. He told me how frightening the preparation for the invasion was. Everyone was organizationally lined up so that you knew, he said, that you were the replacement for the one in front of you when he would be killed and there was someone behind you for when you were killed. He was a replacement for a lieutenant who had been killed on D-Day.
My father detested false bravado and the glorification of war. He knew that he had a role in winning the war. He didn't need personal glory. He just wanted Canada's role to be acknowledged. That was good enough for him.
My father shaped my ideas about war in ways I only later realized. During the Vietnam War, we would talk about it, knowing none of our family or friends were going to be called up. The war was constantly in the news and I met draft dodgers and deserters around town. When the My Lai massacre occurred, and I said something about it, my father got upset and said that I didn't understand how things like this could happen in war.
Then he told me the story about a unit commanded by a friend had encountered Nazi Youth troops in a field in Normandy. They feigned surrender and when the Canadians went forward to capture them, they dropped down in the tall grass. Others, hidden, then fired their guns and killed several of the Canadians. When the Nazis were finally captured, this friend shot them all. My father told this story with a quiet anguish. War is always evil, he was saying to me; terrible things always happen. But sometimes war is necessary. We had family who never made it out of Europe. I am named after my grandfather's brother Lazar who was killed along with his wife Golda and their two children in the death camp of Treblinka.
The war shaped my father's life. By the time he came back chemical engineering had advanced so much he would have had to go back to school. It was too late; he was married and he had to work. During the war he started smoking which was one factor that led to his death. He always had a fierce desire to be with his family when other dads went golfing. We always ate dinner together. The war made him so adult, so responsible, so much a man.
His funeral was on Remembrance Day, November 11, 1984.
(My father Jack Martin Troster and my grandmother Rose Troster at his homecoming party in late 1946. My mother Lilian Stone and my great-aunt Rose Shulman are in the background)