Bagpipes that make it rain

A certain synchronicity of time between what is happening now on the Old Continent and St. Patrick’s Day prompted me to submit this piece to Lest We Forget. Although St. Patrick’s Day is not the Scottish holiday, which is St. Andrew’s Day, due to Celtic immigration and historical events, it has become so traditional in North America to hear Scottish pipers that no one has any problem with it. Besides, aren’t Ireland and Scotland both Celtic countries?

Among the cities on this continent with a historic parade for this holiday, Montreal has been at the top of the list for over a century and a half. However, in the pervasive gaiety of the popular “Parade”, Montrealers attach a very special meaning to it: that of the imminent and long-awaited arrival of spring.

The following, which is a true story, began on a distant day in my childhood, in 1964 or 1965, when I was less than 10 years old. Just as I had been introduced to Quebec’s St. Jean Baptiste Day, I had also been introduced to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. With a father who, in his own words, had “a grandmother with Hill as a maiden name, a mother whose maiden name was O’Malley and a father who played lacrosse at the Shamrock…”, how would that be surprising?

My father was Ti-Mick Côté, a garage serviceman, a taxi driver and a veteran of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal. I’ve already talked a little about him and others in this blog and I still have a lot to say.

We both left that morning in a car, an old green and white 1956 Chevrolet, with a rounded body, so rusty that when I hit my shin on it one day, it left a scar for eternity. We made a pit stop at the Binerie, a meeting place for taxi drivers who could eat there almost at any time. We used to say “the Binerie on Mont-Royal Street” because it was located “on Mont-Royal street” in a working-class neighbourhood which was full of children playing outside. That was long before some speculators invented “Le Plateau” as a way of making money for them. We had driven to Montreal city centre, still the Metropolis of Canada, under a sky that threatened the worst. An hour and a half after our departure, our stomach was full but we were worried. We finally found ourselves at the strategic waiting place at the curb. With a touch of Quebecois fatality in our eyes, the weather did not look that good. As we left the house, the temperature was chilly and the streets were under thick and grey skies. We had been psychologically prepared for what was to come under an Irish and Scottish winter. Lo and behold, as we were waiting at the curb there was a change in temperature as only this city can offer, whether positive or negative. And in just one hour, the weather forecasted magically disappeared, giving way to ideal weather…

I was very happy and waiting with my two feet firmly planted on the edge of the pavement with my back resting on my father’s belly. My father was standing right behind me. All we had to do was to take part in a game of who would be the first to see the arrival of the head of the procession from a distance. And so, under a pure azure sky, we witnessed the first energetic comings and goings of the pre-parade scouts and, more importantly, finally began to hear the plaintive and moving sound of the Black Watch bagpipes which I knew and my old man had meant.

My father’s instructions were that when the men of this regiment were passing by, I was to stand perfectly straight, head up in silence and no matter what happened, not to move an eyelash, because at the same time, he was to give the most beautiful military salute possible. The salute given by us was a very important symbol. My father had reminded me each time…

“During the war, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal and the Black Watch fought side by side many times to push back Hitler’s army. And that neither of us ever gave up…” He added… “That year he could also have joined the Black Watch…” but that I had finally chosen the Fusiliers because his language was French. In short, all these things made me think, as a child, that under those circumstances it was only natural that the bagpipes should give me the emotions they did. Moreover the regiment’s drums sounded like those of our old Compagnie franche de la Marine which we used to go and see in the middle of summer at the Fort of Saint-Helene Island…

When the music passed us by, of course I did what I had to. Except that suddenly a startling sensation came over me. Something like three drops of rain falling on my head. “But it’s not raining… Could it be a sparrow?”, I said to myself without moving and scanning the sky left and right. As soon as the bagpipes passed, I touched the top of my head to see what it could be. No, it wasn’t bird’s dropping, so it could only be water. I asked my father who was watching me, if he hadn’t received some drops. He simply said that maybe he had, but that he hadn’t bothered because he was perfectly at attention honouring the Black Watch that were passing by. Mockingly, he added that I’d better get back watching the parade because if I missed it, I’d have to wait a long time for the next one…

The rest of the parade went very smoothly, as you can imagine, but on the way back the whole thing seemed rather too strange. I asked my father if he had ever seen a weather phenomenon like that and then, probably coming from those Scottish and Irish roots that gave him the ability to communicate with elves and leprechauns, he replied, “You know, sometimes some bagpipes make it rain without anyone being able to understand it. But then, it happens so infrequently that you can consider it a great chance to be personally affected.”

At eight or at most nine years old, this became a certainty. For a few years, I felt the luckiest to have found this little happiness. But in reality, this was only the beginning of a story that would last for decades.

The following year, I believe, it was with my Dad that I saw for the first time a 1962 movie which was soon to become one of the most famous war movies: The Longest Day. And as you no doubt know, one of the events in the film was the crossing of the Bénouville Bridge in Normandy (code-named Pegasus Bridge) by Lord Lovat and his ‘piper’ (born in Regina in 1922), Bill Millin.

 

 

The thing seemed to me a pure fantasy, exactly of the kind I already knew the Americans were capable of inventing, so my father explained to me without elaborating too much that, despite a few small details, it had indeed taken place. And that it happened quite often in war that reality was more incredible than fiction and that he could give me dozens of examples of this kind of thing. And that one day, when I will be older, we might talk about it again if I was still interested.

Time passed too quickly and one evening in 1983, my Dad Ti-Mick left this earth to join many of his twenty year old friends. For his funeral, very modest I assure you, one of his brothers in arms with whom he had remained close all his life, Mr. Arthur Fraser, asked me if I had the idea of playing some bagpipes in church. I told him that he had a good idea, that I had a tape player to do it and that I would talk to the priest. I then asked the veteran in question if he had any suggestions for the song, as he was of Scottish origin. He then suggested When the pipers play. I don’t need to tell you any more about it except that if you don’t know anything about the lyrics, I suggest you read them and you will understand the rest.

Life went on and one day I decided to move to France. Since then, every two or three years my wife and I go to the commemorations in Normandy where we have made friends. And there, on a day of commemoration in Dieppe, I was given to learn two historical facts. The first was that on August 19, 1942 (the bloodiest page in the history of the Canadian Army), a detachment of the Black Watch was among those who landed (including the Fusiliers Mont-Royal) and those who were not killed became prisoners of war.

And the second is that the liberation of Dieppe in 1944 was carried out by the same regiments that had stormed the city two years earlier. These two Montreal regiments not only marched together to the applause and flowers of the city’s inhabitants, but that the Black Watch stood on guard of honour to salute the other regiments with bagpipes, including, of course, the Fusiliers.

And if that wasn’t bad enough for Ti-Mick, this was a month after these two infantry regiments had fought side by side and were decimated south of Caen, facing what is still identified today as the most powerful German armoured division of the Second World War, Kurt Meyer’s 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division (nicknamed Panzermeyer, or ‘Meyer the armoured’).

So this is the end of my story about a certain St. Patrick’s Day Parade from my childhood in Montreal in the mid-1960s. This is how I came to understand the tears my father was shedding that day.

What’s that you say? At 65, I no longer believe in Elves or Goblins?

Oh. I didn’t say that. You’d be wrong because during a commemoration day in Bénouville, without anticipating it, my wife Isabelle and I found ourselves stopped in the middle of a bridge to hear bagpipes.

And we can now testify that Ti-Mick had indeed been advised by these mysterious entities to tell the truth about bagpipes.

Because by the time I grabbed the camera to take the following shot, quite unexpectedly and while it was perfectly sunny, it suddenly started to rain in the car.

So who knows if one of these days, you might be a witness to such a phenomenon?

Thank you for reading.

Yves Côté, son of Ti-Mick


Below is a link to When the Pipers Play.

Lyrics

I hear the voice, I hear the war
I hear the sound, on a distant shore
I feel the spirit of yesterday,
I touch the past, when the pipers play.
The pipes kept playing, for you and me
They kept on saying, we will soon be free
And your soul will never fade away
You’ll live forever, when the pipers play
The pibroch rears its deadly cry
Ah, some will live and some will die
And though they passed so far away
I feel their presence when the pipers play
The pipes kept playing, for you and me
They kept on saying, we will soon be free
And your soul will never fade away
You’ll live forever, when the pipers play
It speaks of love, I have lost
Its speaks of my eternal cost
It speaks the price of peace today
A price remembered, when the pipers play
We do remember when the pipers play
The pipes kept playing, for you and me
They kept on saying we will soon be free
And your soul will never fade away
You’ll live forever, when the pipers play
The pipes kept playing, for you and me
They kept on saying we will soon be free
And your soul will never fade away
You’ll live forever, when the pipers play
Source: Musixmatch

Heavy tears for Bergen-Belsen

While certain obligations and images of current events bring us back tragically to the constancy of our humble and sometimes also heroic human condition, here is an exclusive text for Lest We Forget from a work in preparation (all rights reserved). On this 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camp of Bergen-Belsen, I want to sincerely thank Mr. Pierre Lagacé for giving me the honour of presenting it to the readers of his blog.

Heavy tears for Bergen-Belsen

On April 15, 1945, the British 11th Armoured Battalion were the first to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. But they were not the only heroic liberators of the camp who may have kept a low profile all their lives…

As a very young teenager, an exceptional documentary on the concentration camps had been broadcast one evening on Radio-Canada. It had been shown a on weekday at 11 o’clock at night. As my mother was hospitalized, I asked my father for permission to watch it. After some thoughts, since my grades and school behaviour were satisfactory, he granted me permission. But there was one condition: he wanted to watch it with me. I thought it might give me a follow-up to what he had told me a few years earlier, so I was happy.

One day he had asked me to go and retrieve a document from his boss. His boss stretching out his arm to get it, his shirt sleeve came up and I saw for the first time his bare forearm. He was angry that I had seen the number tattooed on his arm, he straightened himself up by speaking in Yiddish (which he did when things were not to his liking in the garage…) and lowered his sleeve then handed me an envelope. Not knowing anything about the tattoo and surprised by his reaction, I had talked about it when I got home. And in a language that a ten year old child could understand, my father had told me a little about what it had been like in Europe, some twenty years before, two decades, almost an eternity for me then… He added that I shouldn’t worry about his boss, that he would continue to still love me and that I should just pretend nothing had happened because in his life he had known more than his share of misfortune.

When the night of the broadcast came, my father sat in his rocking chair and left me the more comfortable chair. The ceiling light was turned off and we were sitting in front of the black and white TV screen. And that’s how two memories were engraved in my mind and were always associated. The first memory were the horrifying images of that documentary you should have seen once. They were images of a dirty bulldozer which pushed over a mass of emaciated and disarticulated corpses until they felt into a pit. Exactly as if they were garbage in a landfill. The second memory was about my father who leaned forward at the same time, with his elbows resting on his knees, his hands gathered in front, his feet spread apart and his face dripping with tears. Tears so heavy that they felt to the ground like a heavy spring shower.

When the documentary was over, our emotions were more or less under control. My father asked me soberly what I remembered from all this and if I had any questions. Apart from being convinced that a man as hard to hurt as he was could cry without shame (which I didn’t admit to him because that wasn’t what he wanted to know…), I expressed the small point of view of a teenager with a lot of questions in my mind. Then, I couldn’t help myself and I asked him why he had cried when he saw the scene with the bulldozer. And then he stood up, looked me straight in the eyes and came gently towards me. He simply said: “Because I was there when these images were shot. I was at the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany, just before the war ended”. I was without words. I was probably so stunned that he opened his arms and told me to come near him. Thirty seconds later, he kissed my head and added: “Now to the beds. Tomorrow is certainly going to be a day when we can both do our best. Tilting his head a little to the side, he said tenderly: “And forward march!”.

Source IWM

Thus ended what was my first evening as an adult. My investigation about what I had seen would continue…

In order to avoid as much as possible to trigger an episode of heart problems (from the 70s onwards, he had experienced several), I never dared to talk about all this with him again afterwards. And time passed as it always does for people who love each other, too quickly…

In September 1984, Ti-Mick, that was my father’s nickname, suffered a devastating heart attack at the age of 63. That’s my age today… The following year, in 1985, I set out to find out what really had happened of my father’s journey in Europe and what it had been like or at least to find out more about it, the wear and tear he had endured. With time I had learned a few things during his lifetime but which seemed to me much more full of holes, than full of solid facts. At the forefront of this quest, it seemed important to me to clarify was the presence of Fusiliers Mont-Royal at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

Living in Montreal at the time, I went first to visit my father’s brothers-in-arms whom I knew. Gathering here and there some information, especially anecdotes that did not seem to me to be decisive in any way. Nevertheless I had heard that from Holland, the regiment had been so scattered that my interlocutors had only seen “Ti-Mick” again long after his return to rejoin them. Ah, and also my father had specifically forbidden everyone to say anything concerning him, to a son a little too curious for his taste… This convinced me in changing how to search for facts and move forward concretely. Finally, to change my method…

Having no access to sources other than which was available to every researcher, I determined from then on to contact those whom I could logically only learned about the regiment. Well, well, “poor little me”! Then followed a rather hazardous and approximate progression of knowledge, very partial and repetitive, in factual content.

This lasted for years.

I was reading everything that could lay my hand on. There were lots of information that were never really new to me and everything was very fragmented (except for the work of Pierre Vennat, a journalist, I wish here to thank him publicly). There were phone calls and letters to Mr. X or Mrs. Y (people generally polite and promising to help). I had a lot of work to do (but no doubt too busy to follow up on the content), questioning of specialized and distrustful authors, questioning of journalists designated as authorities, questioning of official and salaried historians, which meant that at the best with the (slow) progress of my research, concrete results were only presented in a jagged fashion.

My attempts were not very encouraging, but fortunately sometimes left me with the satisfaction of meeting wonderful. Of course, my insistence, perhaps my obstinacy, often earned me to be classified by my interlocutors as a “constant source of intellectual irritation”. This is why many of them have developed a tendency of keeping out of the way to avoid fatigue. A classification that I still sometimes have retained today. Without being the only one of its kind, probably…

Then one day life brought me to move to Europe. In France to be precise. And then I said to myself that, after all, to find concrete information on a human scale about these events that interested me, perhaps this greater proximity would not be useless? And I was quite right to ask myself this hypothesis as a motivation not to give up. Not to back down. Because since then, without announcing or describing everything, among other things I have found what follows:

a) official archival photos and films from the very rich and enriching Imperial War Museum in London, as well as the very moving Bergen-Belsen Memorial in Germany, where soldiers who appear several times can only be from the Régiment des Fusiliers Mont-Royal.

These photos include footage of a convoy of trucks arriving with a number of soldiers clearly wearing a beret with the battalion insignia (a very special grenade), footage of the same type of trucks loaded with Nazi prisoners being transported under strict guard of armed men with the same insignia, and finally, the images that precede and follow the very moving images, presented several times on the Radio-Canada network, of the arrest of Joseph Kramer, head of the Nazi guards, by Montreal soldier Jack Marcovitch of the Royal Canadian Army Corps.

In these “complementary” images, we clearly see other soldiers participating in his arrest, one of whom, in the foreground, is carrying a grenade on his beret.

On some sequences, the regimental shoulder badges can be seen, but it would take professional technical image processing work to identify them absolutely.

On other sequences that are chronologically subsequent to these first ones, the uniforms of these men having obviously been changed, there are no longer any fabric shoulder badges. Too bad. Although one can get an accurate picture of all this from these other items we found…

(b) the official list of names of all units which are recognised as having participated in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp by : arrest, surveillance and armed supervision of its guards; by securing the surviving deportees, providing health and sanitary care (general typhus epidemic and others) and progressive re-feeding; by burying tens of thousands of people who died of hunger and/or disease (the remains lying in the open air) and thousands more who died after 15 April (up to 500 deaths per day); by the medical transport of the sick, repatriation and/or emigration of the survivors; by the destruction by fire of these barracks, where, in an attempt to protect themselves from the bad weather and the cold, thousands of deportees were crammed together and finally; by the forced securing of the Nazi guards (men and women) taken prisoner because of a riot and subsequent attempts at lynching (very understandable). The first peculiarity of this list is that only four units have no regimental identifications, all four following each other in the nomenclature by numbers that remain to this day without any known meaning. And which has for second characteristic that none of the mentioned units has a grenade as insignia…

(c) direct testimonies from deportees about the presence among the liberators of many French-speaking Canadian soldiers whose main task (along with others) would have been to disarm, arrest and “supervise” the Nazi officers and guards in the camp and to force them to dispose of the bodies themselves with their bare hands to and inside the pits.

Of these elements, in conclusion, let me be granted a wish. One that all the children and descendants of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal who, at the age of 20, took the risk of enlisting, should seriously explore their memory and the wartime memories of their fathers, uncles or grandfathers. But also of all the “Canayens” who did so in Quebec. Accompanied by our mothers, grandmothers and aunts, for having given us to live in a world that was fairer and much more abundant than the one they lived in, for the stubbornness they showed in order to bring down a dictatorship based not only on inequality in human rights but on the deliberate organization of it, don’t they deserve our “re-recognition”? And therefore, by definition, this knowledge that is always to be sought of what they have done?

That they had French as their language does not justify any impasse on the heroism of ours. Neither in Canada nor in the world. That they themselves chose discretion belongs to them, and I certainly will not blame them. But that does not allow us to be indifferent to their role in the annihilation of an empire which not only gave itself the ideology of imposing itself on everyone by force of arms, but also the right to decide the destiny of any human group. This went so far as to organize their physical elimination.
Their extermination…

Who knows so long afterwards, a spring shower could not contribute, if only a little, to the germination of one or two flowers of liberty and justice rising up?
One, two, or a hundred thousand?
Thank you for reading me (at length…) here.

THE END

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