Veterans examine hopes and fears

Three weeks after the New York atrocity on September 11, 2001, Geraldine “Gerry” Muter had still not turned on the television in her room at the George Hees veterans’ wing of a Toronto hospital. She was afraid it would bring back the terror she felt serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force in wartime London.

“You were praying all the time,” says Gerry, who worked in the Women’s Division of the RCAF, in offices carved out of Harrods department store. “I lived in a room on the fifth floor in Porchester Square and I would see the searchlights criss-crossing the sky. I would pray He would keep me alive.”

When she and her friends went to the pub for a drink, they would hold hands in the blackout, not to get lost. “I drank a lot then, but as soon as the (air raid) siren went, you were cold sober.”

Her greatest fear was the buzz bombs, which the Germans – just like the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center – sent over just as people were going to work. One morning a buzz bomb fell at the end of her street, making furniture jump. If she hadn’t just washed her hair, making her late for work, she would have been standing at thbus stop where the bomb fell.

Home again, she says, “nobody understood. I was hard to get on with for a while. You just never stopped thinking about the war.” And, quietly: “I still do.”

Camaraderie and faith lend assurance
For Stewart Bull, who was a schoolteacher in Windsor, Ont. when he signed up, the answer then was – as it now is – prayer. “In Normandy (right after the D-Day landings), we were being mortared to death,” says Stewart, now 85. As company commander, he told the 125 men in his unit that the padre would be conducting a communion service that night in an old salt mine. “I am going, and if anyone wants to come, I will be at the end of the fence there,” he said.

“I walked down there, expecting there would be maybe two men. I looked behind me, and there were 100 men.” The tears flowed down his cheeks. “And some of them were killed the next day.”

“I have never forgotten,” he says after a pause. “It said to me that, when men are lost, far from their families, they need assurance. I could not give it to them, but I could take them to where they could get it.”

Stewart came home missing one eye and part of his nose, lost to a bomb in Normandy, but went on to teach for many years at the University of Toronto Schools. Now he is worried: “We have a new situation. We don’t know where it’s going to take us. It bothers me that we could have a war based on chemistry and biological weapons…. I can’t do very much now. All I can do is pray.”

Next: Laughter buoys the spirit

Laughter buoys the spirit
For Frederick “Jeff” Jeffery, who grew up in Vancouver and signed up with the RCAF two weeks before his 18th birthday, it was laughter that carried him through. A priest asked him, “Are you prepared to die?” He replied: “No, I’m just joining the Air Force.”

At briefings, says Jeff, 77, he and the crew of his Halifax bomber were always the jokers. “We had a good padre and he would come out on his bike every time (before a mission) to give us chocolates. He spoke our language. He talked about ‘going for a burton’” – dying.”

Plenty of his comrades “went for a burton.” Jeff and his crew would flop into bed after another mission, then hear the service police taking away the belongings of airmen who had not returned.

“I was not religious,” he says, “although I heard the angels sing.” It happened on moonlit nights, the clouds all peaks and valleys. “I would hear this music, and the gunners would say, ‘Jeff, are you hearing the angels sing again?’”

Accepting anger and confronting fear
His reaction when people died: “I got cross. I was cross when my wing commander went down the first night I flew. That was over Stuttgart. I am angry at fate. Maybe,” he says thoughtfully, “that’s my way of showing anguish. I have never said that before.”

All his defenses came tumbling down though on Sept. 11 when he found he couldn’t stop crying. “It shook the hell out of me,” he says, “killing innocent people purposely.”

Back then, his main fear was that he might let down his crew. Now he fears for a new generation. “We are not dealing with a normal enemy – if any war can be ‘normal,'” he says. “How can you restrict the religious consequences to Afghanistan or Iraq? If I was a true Muslim, and my brothers were killed, I would probably want to retaliate – and I would not be afraid to die. I think the most important thing for young Canadians to be aware of is the sacrifices Canadians made in two world wars.”

“But there are more sacrifices to come.”