By Dr. R. Byrnes Fleuty
‘We would sooner f— than fight.’ That’s Uncle’s favourite song these days. He says he doesn’t know why the song came back to him; “guess it’s just one of them things.”
I arrive at his door unannounced and ring the doorbell. While I wait, I notice his lovely little red brick cottage is in need of some tender loving care. Paint is peeling off the steps and the wood is beginning to rot. I ring the bell again. A few minutes pass and the door slowly opens.
There he sits, in his wheelchair, looking out the screen door at me. I tell him who I am and walk in. “Well for goodness sake,” says Uncle, as he backs his chair into the tidy living room. I notice pictures of my family taped to the bookcase beside his easy chair. I don’t ask if he knows who I am. We talk.
“They better not bother me,” says Uncle. “Who?” I ask. “Those crazy people that keep coming to the door asking me for money, I’ll show them if they bother me.” He wheels over to the bookcase and draws a four-inch hunting knife from the pages of a book. With exaggerated gestures he shows me how he used to throw the knife from the living room across the kitchen into the back door. “The neighbors wondered what the heck was marking up the kitchen door,” he laughs.
“Oh, we’re the heroes of the night,” another chorus or two, and then he tells one of his war stories. “I was in two world wars,” he says, “slept in a slit trench with three of my buddies. When I woke up next morning I tried to waken my pals. They were all dead. Don’t know how I lived through that one, lucky I guess, just one of them things.”
A lady arrives at the door. She’s from the Legion. She picks up Uncle’s laundry every week and brings it back neat and clean. Uncle goes into a chorus of “We’re the heroes….” The lady looks at him and in a scolding voice acknowledges his latest song to entertain his friends. I thank her for being so kind to Uncle. She is embarrassed. “We have to look after our old friends,” she says.
Uncle is mad at his neighbor across the street. She told all the young ladies to stay away from him. She says he talks dirty. “The dirty old so and so,” he says, “now no one will come and visit me.”
Uncle sits in his wheelchair day after lonely day. Hasn’t been out of the house for several years now, and will not leave it. “No sir!” he says. “The last time I went out they took off my leg above the knee. If I go out again they’ll probably take off the other one. Besides, my doctor told me to stay inside.” I think to myself, I should have such obedient patients.
He has good neighbors, not that he appreciates them, at least not so you’d notice. They come by regularly and shave him, bring him food. I coincidentally met one of them a while back, at the doughnut shop where I stopped to have coffee on the way home. He’s a fireman. It was he who found Uncle lying in bed four or so years ago, unconscious, with a gangrenous right foot. He told me then that Uncle has a gun now, in case of intruders. “Someone is always breaking in the house or robbing him,” he said.
When asked about the gun, Uncle wheels into his bedroom, pulls open his bedside drawer and produces a very realistic water pistol. “Oh we’re the heroes of the night, we would rather fart than fight,” sings the old soldier as he wanders in and out of two wars and everything that came before and after.
The fact is, Uncle really was a hero in the First World War. He got trapped behind enemy lines one night. When he realized where he was, he turned his horse about and headed back to the Allies. En route he came upon a German pillbox with six enemy soldiers in it. Uncle apparently dispatched them all. He was decorated for bravery in battle.
As a dispatch rider, he came into the combat zone often. His pictures show him as a handsome, sturdy young man – with a thick head of hair until he encountered enemy mustard gas. He was sent to the hospital for treatment and rehabilitation. That’s how he went from dispatch rider to the artillery; well, that’s partly how it happened. Uncle quickly recovered from the mustard gas and shock, at least well enough to bother the nurses and get under the skin of hospital staff, so they turned him over to headquarters for some light duty away from the hospital. His commanding officer assigned Uncle to a fresh, young artillery officer as his batman. The first thing he was ordered to do was clean the officer’s boots, so he did. He took them out to the horse watering trough and washed them in it. Within 12 hours he was back at the front lines as a horse artilleryman. Uncle comments: “I wasn’t conscripted, I volunteered to go to war to fight, not clean some bloody officer’s boots.”
It’s hard to accept the changes I see and hear as Uncle drifts in and out of reality. His body still looks strong but he won’t try to walk with crutches. He tells how he fought in two wars and rode dispatch in the second one. You remind him that there were no horses in the Second World War and there is a determined pause, a puzzled look and he carries right on with: “I guess we used some kind of machinery, just one of them things.”
Uncle wasn’t in WW II, of course, but at his age we don’t contradict him. He was a ‘hero of the night.’ He and my dad have both received medals for 60 years in The Royal Canadian Legion. But for them and men like them, we would not enjoy the freedom we all take so much for granted.
I say God bless you uncles and dads and all the other ‘heroes.’