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Blog: Friday, November 13th, 2020

77K from Graceland

I haven’t had any new fridge magnets lately.  The students at our school occasionally go on vacation during the school year, and often they will bring me back a souvenir magnet of their memories. I like to pick one up from every exotic place that I have visited…but they don’t sell fridge magnets in Ucluelet, BC.  In lieu of not being allowed to leave BC for the moment,  I will defer to one of my November memories, with a Remembrance theme…

We had been criss-crossing through France & Belgium with three teenage kids. Not touring in the true sense…actually my kids will accuse me of starving them on at least one occasion; remember—starving for a teenage boy translates as not having a sit-down meal for at least two hours, possibly three, even if there is other snack food in the car. 

Our journey started three days earlier, when we visited a World War I cemetery where Canadian soldiers were buried, and we (meaning ME) decided it would be nice to pay our respects and lay some flowers. Our weary, sleepy children finally awoke and obliged to help, if only to get out of the car for a stretch. One signed the visitors register, the second laid the flowers on the gravestone, and the third called out the GPS coordinates for me to record. Returning to the vehicle, one finally noticed dozens of bouquets of flowers stuffed in the back of the van…and asked how many of these we were doing.  74 more. How LONG was this going to take?!!! Walking back to the car, and in my calmest voice, I responded, “Four days.”  Three pairs of fully-awake teenager eyes turned to their mother in disbelief, hoping for some collaborative effort to out-maneuver Dad’s crazy idea of a European vacation.  Mom’s response was, “ You’d better help him or it’s going to take longer than four days.” The next hour was a golden moment of silence and reflection—kidnapped by parents against their will, 8,000 km from home, and no hope of extraction for 4 days.

I didn’t know if they would even get out of the car for the second cemetery, but my oldest daughter started the charge, and the others begrudgingly followed. It didn’t take long before we were into a routine—dad drove while mom mapped out the plans for the next stop.  We got lost many times, laughed a lot, and our kids got to try out their high school French to the locals. When we asked for directions & they discovered our purpose, many people would have us follow them, kilometres out of their way, and direct us to the cemetery we were looking for. Did I mention there are over 1500 War cemeteries in the area?

On the third day, we started in East Belgium, zig-zagging country roads and finishing up in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France near sunset. The cemetery sign said it was closed at 6:30 on Saturdays, and we had arrived at 6:45.  The front gate was closed, locked, and was too high to climb, but the side fence was shorter—except for the large dog in the house next door. A old French woman kept peeking out the window to see if we were going to trespass the cemetery…I tried to imagine what I might say to the Gendarmes, sitting handcuffed in a French jail for 72 hours. My son was the only one crazy enough to hear my idea and share in this less-than-legal activity; the other two took one look at dad’s face & realized he was planning something they didn’t want any part of, and walked back to the car.

Plan A: Jump the fence together. Local police arrive in 8 minutes, so we have 7 minutes to find our gravestone, lay flowers & jump the back fence, where the car will be waiting for us to jump in, and make our getaway. If they arrive sooner, we split up & I lead them away from the gravesite to buy time, jump the fence and make our getaway.

Plan B: Leave the flowers at the gate. Not a option after three days of driving.

Just as we were set to jump the fence (and subsequently get banned from France for life), a small car drove up to the gate.  A young man stepped out and checked to see if the gate was locked.  Suddenly we realized he was the CARETAKER.  We walked up to him and asked in broken French if he would let us in.  He told us it was closed & to come back tomorrow…except that we had driven 300km to get here today, and tomorrow we would be 600 km farther from here. Then, in a tactical oratory, a flurry of jumbled words from both us in French AND English, “ Canadian soldiers…pay our respects…500 km drive to get here…a blood relative…sil vous plait….” Finally he relented, and asked if we knew the location of the grave. He opened the gate and after 5 minutes realized I only knew the general location.  With his knowledge as the cemetery caretaker, he obliged to help us locate our Canadian soldier & lay our flowers. We thanked him and took a photo with him. Mission accomplished!

We ran back around the corner to the car, as if we had done something illegal, but the girls could tell something was up.  On the drive back, we continued to laugh & share our harrowing story of how we almost destroyed Canada-French relations that day, but it all turned out perfectly in the end. We found a French restaurant, called Buffalo Bill’s—and the kids ordered whatever they wanted that night. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful day.

The grave? Private Brian Harper Butler, #116402,  29th Battalion, CEF, a Fraser Valley boy who fought at Vimy Ridge and made the ultimate sacrifice, 7700 km from home, 23 April 1917.

We will remember them.

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