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The Forgotten War

Korean War photos.

Korean War photos. Photo Credit: By All photographs are works of the United States federal government. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nicknamed the Forgotten War, the Canadian participation in the Korean War is overshadowed by our efforts in the First and Second World Wars. I barely knew about the Korean War when I was in secondary school. My only connection to it was the names of the men who fought in that conflict being called out at every Remembrance Day ceremony in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. When I moved to South Korea after graduating university in 1997, this all changed.

I was an English teacher for half a year in South Korea. My first post was in Puyo (Bueyo), a rural town about three hours south of Seoul. When I wanted a taste of the big city, I took a bus to Taejon (Daejong), about an hour northeast of my Korean home. In the middle of the trip, the bus passed a war memorial. Huge bronze soldiers hoisted guns into the air on a gravel patch beside the highway. No one on the bus or in Puyo could ever tell me what the monument was for but it brought the Korean War to the forefront of my mind.

Twenty years ago it wasn’t hard to remember a war had been fought all over the peninsula. Sure, South Korea was a bustling place with lots of trade and tourism and great food. But there were signs that it was still on alert, ready for action in case the North decided to attack. There were armed soldiers at train stations, bus stations and sentry points on beaches.

The war between South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) started on June, 25 1950 when the DPRK invaded South Korea. In February of the next year, Canada, as part of a United Nations (UN) force, entered the war. Around 26,791 Canadian military personnel took part in combat as well as observer roles after an armistice was signed in July, 27 1953. The two Korean countries have been in an uneasy ceasefire ever since.

During my teaching stint, I hopped on a bus and took it to Inchon (now Incheon) to visit a fellow English teacher, Niki. In 1997 Inchon was a growing city. In 1950, it was an important port for Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and within striking distance of North Korea. It was also the scene of the Inchon Landings in September 1950 where the UN forces recaptured Seoul and delivered a tremendous wallop to the North Korean Peoples Army (KPA). It was a strategic and crucial victory for South Korea. (UN forces began hitting the KPA from the sea. The Royal Canadian Navy was a part of this attack.)

When this Canadian got off the bus in Inchon forty years later, I didn’t have to contend with shells going off or bullets whizzing by me. There were ROK military all over the place, an obvious sign of lingering tension, but I left that all behind once I left the station. I met up with my friend and we went for a hike in the hills of Inchon. It was New Year’s Day and sunny and bright. The temperature hovered just around zero and it was perfect for a jaunt outside. We walked up and up through a patch of fir trees tree and then waded through tall golden grass. We could see the ocean, the blue Yellow Sea, as we ascended higher into the hills. Soon we were walking along a ridge strewn with broken barbed wire. Along the way were worn concrete bunkers and broken down sentry posts. Were these remnants from the Korean War? Had we stumbled upon history? I’ll never know.

That’s the problem with being a traveller sometimes. With no one around to tell us what we were looking at or signs to guide us, we had no idea if these ramparts were from the war or just part of everyday life on the south side of Korea. I later asked my Korean friends about the military ruins but they didn’t have any answers. Neither did the internet, then and today.

Modern-day Incheon (the spelling was changed in 2000) is the site of an international airport. My husband and I landed there when we went to Korea this past May. The city has exploded in size, both population and square footage, and is the third most populated place in South Korea. I wonder if the remnants of what I had seen so many years ago still exist. The war certainly does although you wouldn’t know it. Seoul is a cosmopolitan city and no different from any other city in the world even though it’s just over 56 km (35 miles) from its enemy. There are no longer soldiers patrolling the train and bus stations because technology (CCTV) can be everywhere at once. That all changed when I went to the DMZ.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

View of downtown Seoul, May 2016.

North and South Korea are separated by the demilitarized zone (the DMZ), that’s only about an hour’s drive from Seoul. The DMZ acts as a buffer between South and North Korea and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. My husband Jason and I signed up for a DMZ tour and left on a bus one morning to get a glimpse of the other side.

As we headed out to the demilitarized zone, we began to see the markings of a country on guard. The highway skirting the river leading to the Yellow Sea had barbed wire wrapped around the guardrails and every few metres there were covered platforms with soldiers stationed in them. In some of these little houses, I saw the soldiers hunched over their guns pointed out to the water, ready to fire at any moment.

Guard post.

At the DMZ, the tension is high. We’re told when to take photos and not to make any gestures or faces towards the North Korean side. In one of the buildings on the South Korea side, there’s a plaque honouring the Canadians who fought in the Korean War. The bronze marker is one among 15 other United Nations countries that fought alongside South Korea and Canada. Five hundred and sixteen Canadians died in the Korea War, far less than the First and Second Wars. But they still sacrificed their lives for peace.

Plaque at the DMZ.

Plaque at the DMZ.

It’s only writing this blog piece that I learned that the first Canadian infantry unit to take part in the Korean War, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), was trained in Calgary. Another connection to the Forgotten War, this one in Canada. Lest we forget, the Forgotten War.

Target, Zellers and Grade 7

bus.

Here comes the bus!

I walked past some Calgary seniors last Thursday lamenting the loss of Target. It sounded like they were truly upset. However, one woman asked, “What was wrong with Zellers? I miss that place.” I have to agree with her. While Target and Zellers are only two of the many retailers fading away, the Mom and Pop clothing stores that used to be open on our main streets are almost all gone. But not from some of our memories. Target’s closing caused a very buried story to resurface.

Living in rural Nova Scotia meant my two younger sisters and I had to take the bus to and from school. We waited for the bus to pick us up in all types of weather: wind, rain, sleet or snow and had to be prepared to fight these elements. Therefore, from November to March, we were dressed in snow gear.

In the fall of Grade 7 my mom took us shopping in Windsor, Nova Scotia. It was in a family-run clothing store that I met and fell in love with a matching ski jacket and pants: bright yellow and puffy with a faux-leather finish. The coat had a big late 80s asymmetrical collar and a large and shiny brass belt – that buckled in the front. Fabulous! My middle sister got the same suit in blue.

These were expensive purchases at the time and my mother told me the yellow wasn’t a “practical colour.” I guess that meant it wasn’t flattering. There was nothing she could say to turn my head from the sunshine suit. It was mine.

“Looking good!” I thought to myself when I got home and tried on my new winter gear again. The trousers were slightly flared at the bottom to fit over my boots and the jacket cinched nicely at the waist so I did not appear all one shape: blobish. I wished I didn’t have to take my snow and ice clothing off – ever. I wanted everyone to admire my spiffy duds.

Soon after getting my new gear, I was outside Wolfville Junior High School waiting for the bus to take me home. There was a crowd of country kids in the parking lot and I was the only one in a gorgeous and swanky ski suit. I was standing with my friend Angela talking about, what do you think? Boys. Then the guy I had a crush on, a townie, walked by.

Wolfville High.

Scene of the teenage humiliation.

I certainly remember his name because Angela began yelling it at the top of her lungs.

“Steve! Steve! The girl in the yellow ski suit likes you!”

When he turned around she pointed at me. Which she didn’t have to do, as I was the only one in a bright yellow, top to bottom, snowsuit. My face was bright red.

The snowbanks around the school were piled high and I wanted to dive into one and bury myself. But shame still would have found me, as my yellow snowsuit would have been a beacon to light the way. I wanted to rip off the garish trousers and throw the stupid jacket to the wind to be carried far, far, far away from me. Oh the teenage humiliation!

Angela finally shut up and Steve kept walking away. But I was left with hatred for my previously glamourous outfit. From then on I dreaded wearing it and being identified as “The girl in the yellow ski suit with the crush on Steve.”

Of course my parents weren’t going to let me buy something else and I was too big to trade suits with my sister. I just made sure every time I came and left school Steve was nowhere in sight. Even though you could see me coming from a mile away.

Time travel

Colville by Andrew Hunter / Goose Lane

Colville by Andrew Hunter / Goose Lane

Time travel boggles my mind. Yet, as a memoir writer I do it almost every day. One thing different about my continuum is physically I stay in the same place. But sometimes something happens and I’m transported, both body and mind, to a different era.

My husband gave me a book about Alex Colville for Christmas. Colville was an artist famous for his stark and muted everyday images that seem to have something hiding in them. He spent a lot of time in the Maritimes, in and around the areas I know well. He lived in Wolfville, Nova Scotia and while I was growing up near the quaint town, I used to see him and his wife, Rhoda, at church, walking down the street or in friends’ parents’ homes as supper guests. It wasn’t until I graduated high school did I understand that Colville was one of Canada’s prolific painters.

I didn’t know him but I feel like I do. My parents have a few of his prints and I have one too. When Canada Post included Colville’s Church and Horse work as part of its “Masterpieces of Canadian Art” stamp series, Colville autographed special envelopes for the Wolfville post office. I bought five of the envelopes for my family and kept one for myself. Now I have a whole book to look at, at any time.

Flipping through his photos and images many of them are scenes from places I’ve lived and even include people I know. Seeing these paintings I enter a different world. A world that existed yesterday and still exists today. There are scenes of Blomidon, a prominent landmark that sticks out like a pot handle into the Minas Basin. When you’re driving down Highway 101 into the Annapolis Valley from Halifax, you see Blomidon. Then you know you are home. Also along the same highway is Freddy Wilson: “The Waver” who stands on an overpass welcoming travellers to Kings County. Colville’s painting of Freddy is included in the book.

West Brooklyn Road, 1989 / Professor of Romance Languages, 1973

West Brooklyn Road, 1989 / Professor of Romance Languages, 1973

On the page next to Freddy is a work that many people might puzzle over. But I know it’s the Acadia University physical plant and a former professor. Once in a class that I forget now, we were told a story about that painting. But it’s an unsettling one that I won’t repeat.

Main Street Wolfville is featured by Colville. As a background to the main image of a woman and a vehicle, is the war memorial and post office and in behind these landmarks, houses where I went to parties filled with vodka and youth. Grand Pre and the dykes are caught in brush strokes too. In another painting, my friend’s sister rides a horse. And another, there’s Waterville Municipal Airport; where I got my pilot’s license. Today, the airport is in the midst of closing but Colville captured it alive and buzzing. Is one of those planes the one I flew?

Colville went to Mount Allison University and I worked there long after he left. Some of his images remain though for all to see as murals on buildings. I’m wondering if his Milk Truck piece is set in Sackville in the late 50s. I think I recognize the curve in the road.

Because of Alex Colville’s art, I have a tether to another world. I didn’t know him but I feel he knew me.

A welcome home by Freddy

Freddy Wilson.

Look closely… the figure in the middle of the overpass is Freddy Wilson. This photo was taken in July 2014 when Freddy was waving to motorists on Highway 101 near Hantsport, N.S.

I won’t be headed home to Nova Scotia from Calgary for Thanksgiving this year. I’ll miss the red, orange and yellow of the province’s spectacular foliage. I’ll miss bringing in the wood while smelling turkey and pies baking. I’ll miss my family and seeing how tall my niece and nephew have grown. I’ll also miss the drive from the Halifax airport, where a man stands to greet you, to the Annapolis Valley.

My family home is in the Annapolis Valley. Those of you who live (and whose hearts still live) in the valley know to look up at the Bog Road overpass spanning Highway 101, near the town of Hantsport. There’s usually a man standing on the bridge, rain or shine, waving to the cars and trucks and semis passing quickly below. From the driver’s seat, I can never see the man’s face but I know there’s a smile that comes with his “hello.”

For as long as I can remember this man has welcomed or bade farewell to motorists going to and from the valley. My family used to call him “The Waver.” A friend’s mother called him her “Little Buddy.” I didn’t know much about him until an article came out in the local paper, The Advertiser, in 2007.

The waver’s name is Freddy Wilson and the overpass he stands on is now named after him. He’s been waving for over 40 years and a trip home for me is not complete without seeing him. However, he hasn’t been out and about much. His long-time post was replaced by a new, higher bridge and so he’s not out there as often. That means for a few years I returned to the valley, I never got a wave.

Freddy at his  post.

Freddy at his post.

This summer I was back in Nova Scotia and ready for the drive home. It was around suppertime when we neared the turn-off for Hantsport. Who was standing above us on the overpass? Freddy. What a welcome home. Thanks Freddy.

The fraying edge of summer

The light has changed in Calgary the past few days, signalling the end weeks of summer. When I left for vacation in the middle of July there were still many sunshine days ahead. Now a chill is creeping into August mornings and I saw my breath yesterday when I went out on to the porch to pick up the newspaper. Summer is fading but I’m holding on to the warmth of my holiday memories. I don’t want to leave them behind. Just yet.

My husband Jason and I travelled to see his family in Toronto. Our flight itinerary put us in Saskatoon for a six-hour layover. I had never been to the flat city before so we thought we’d take the bus into town. Easy. Although once at the airport it was pouring rain. And freezing cold. We ventured out anyway and headed for Prairie Sun Brewery, and a nice respite from the Saskatchewan chill.

Prairie Sun Brewery

The menu at Prairie Sun Brewery. I don’t like beer so I had a pop.

After missing the bus and finally catching the correct one back to the airport, our flight took off and landed in Toronto just after midnight. We had several days of seeing parents and siblings and nieces and nephews and friends. We went to Milton and Waterloo and hit the west end of Toronto. We even had time to relax.

Toronto traffic.

Toronto traffic. Not bad!

Then it was on to Nova Scotia. We were going for a special occasion – to surprise one of my sisters for her 40th birthday. I was so excited about the plan I almost texted her while I was waiting for my luggage to tell her I was home. Thankfully I didn’t and she was shocked (in a good way) when Jason and I showed up on the doorstep.

Blomidon.

Blomidon – the first thing anyone who grew up in the Annapolis Valley looks for on the drive home.

The next week in the Maritimes was filled with party planning, the 40th bash, visiting family, meeting a puppy, catching up with friends over coffee and showing off some of Nova Scotia’s best sights to my husband. Jason and I took a car trip to the French Shore and stopped at Annapolis Royal where Fort Anne sits. The site was established in 1629 and was traded back and forth between the English and French many times during the many wars between the two nations. Annapolis Royal is a lovely town but I don’t think I would have wanted to be a soldier posted there a couple of hundred years ago. Just like I wouldn’t have wanted to be stationed at the Habitation in Port Royal.

Fort Anne, Annapolis Royal.

Fort Anne, Annapolis Royal.

The Habitation was France’s first successful settlement in North America and was established in 1605. I had been to the Habitation years ago as a child and while the replica of the fort is the same as I remembered, there was a lot less activity then in the 80s. Actors used to bring the Habitation alive and fill it with soldiers and bakers and blacksmiths. I guess Parks Canada doesn’t have the money in the budget for that kind of stuff anymore. Despite this, the Habitation is still an impressive piece of history. Its drafty and damp rooms wouldn’t be a place I’d like to stay over the winter. The colonists only survived thanks to Mi’kmaq neighbours. (On a weird note, it was funny to watch some American tourists complaining about the reception for their mobile phones. Man, times have changed.)

Habitation.

The Habitation in Port Royal.

With that in mind, unlike the Habitation settlers, Jason and I didn’t need to hunt and fish for our food. We only had to stop at a restaurant in Digby. My husband ate world-famous scallops and I had lobster quiche. Mmmmm.  We also took a side trip to Bear River. I love this tiny place because some of the buildings are on silts. Bear River is also known as “The Switzerland of Nova Scotia” because it’s in a valley with hills on either side.

Bear River.

Bear River with its buildings on stilts.

Next there was a stop at the Université Sainte-Anne where I went to French immersion in 1997. Sainte-Anne is a small francophone university made up of just over 500 students and the campus is on the Baie St. Marie. We walked around the ground and I found the residence I lived in way back when.

Université Sainte-Anne.

The residence I lived in while at Université Sainte-Anne.

Surrounding the university are the Acadian fishing towns of Clare, Saulnierville and Meteghan –beautiful and unspoiled. It was nice to see all the Acadian flags on the lawns of people proud of their heritage. We would have gone further down the coast but we ran out of time. We will be back. One day.

Puppy.

Quentin, my pup-hew. AKA my younger sister’s new puppy.

Now we’ve returned to Calgary. At the fraying edge of summer. With my memories of a hot and humid July. There were many other things I saw and did on my trip but I’ll save them for another time. Today I’m happy I was able to re-visit history and people from my past and make a connection with them in the present. We have so much to look forward to.

Dykes in Wolfville.

Walking along the dykes in Wolfville.

Playing the French horn blows

French horn.The flute is so pretty. Silver, slender and refined. I had my heart set on being a flutist when singing up for band in Grade Six. I tried out many instruments but what I really, really wanted was that flute. However, I huffed and puffed but I couldn’t make a sound on the damn skinny thing. When it came to the French horn I was a natural. So I was told by the band teacher. Zut!

I was the only French horn player in the Grade Six band – a combined musical group of two schools, Gaspereau Valley Elementary, the country school, and Wolfville Elementary, the town school. I felt awkward enough having come from the “hick mountain”, not wearing the right brand of clothing, having to take the bus, having to sit in the urban music room with the town kids. Playing the French horn just added to my feelings of rural barbaricness. Why oh why did I have this stupid instrument that I had to stick my hand into?

During band practice, when the teacher called on each of the instrument sections to listen to the harmonies, there were enough flutists to drown out the missed notes. There were enough clarinetists to take the blame for the squeaks. There were enough trumpets to blast through the allegro. Then there was…me. Just me.

I was mortified about playing solo and felt prickles of heat climbing up my neck and poking at my skull. My face was enflamed and my mouth become dry. Making my attempt at blowing into the French horn worse and resulting into nothing resembling a song. Except perhaps a fowl call.

It was hardly the band teacher’s fault that I never practiced so the music escaping my horn wasn’t music at all but a mournful, flat sound like a sad goose squawking over a lost worm. Terribleness that no one should listen too.

Those Wolfville kids were staring at me, wondering why I had left the mountain and climbed down into their green and plush Annapolis Valley. It must have been an inside joke that we were learning John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”

I stayed with the French horn for a year. Then I asked to switch to the trumpet and joined six other horn players. I was much better at being a part of the crowd at this pre-teen point in my life. These would be my “personality developing” years. Most of my friends have had these too. The years where we wanted to fit in. There would be time for learning how to march to our own beat, but not in junior high.

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