“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
The phrase, attributed to both Plato and philosopher George Santayana, brought to mind Cara McKenzie’s grandfather when she was given the statement as a table-topic at a recent Toastmasters meeting in Stettler. Her grandfather, Norm Bomphrey, was first in the Canadian Army, and then the Air Force as a medic, during the Second World War.
Bomphrey passed away in 2009, at the age of 88, after a long life with a wife he met overseas during the war, children and grandchildren. He also had a long life in which he was haunted by memories that he would never, ever share with his families — friends and comrades who died or came home wounded.
“He never spoke about the war,” McKenzie recalled. “We had always known he had been part of the war. It’s where he met grandma.”
However, the war never, ever came up in casual discussion. When someone asked her grandfather about the war, he’d tell a quick, quippy story, something with humour in it, because there were funny moments, when the war seemed to retreat.
“And then he’d quickly change the subject,” McKenzie said.
It wasn’t until after her grandfather died in 2009, and the family was helping clear out the home, that the family truly realized how much of half-a-story they’d gotten from their father and grandfather.
“We knew the funny stories,” she said. There were tales of people in the medic corps trying to outscare each other in the morgue, for example.
Bomphrey, who was born near Saskatoon in 1921, enlisted in 1944 in the early days of the war. He was part of the army at first, but as he was finishing up his training, he found out he could become a medic if he was in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He made the change and got his medical training, and was stationed in Gander, Newfoundland — which at the time was overseas, as it wasn’t part of Canada at the time, McKenzie notes.
“I was talking with my father and he said that the war wasn’t brutal for my grandfather,” McKenzie said. “But he still saw things. He dealt with wounded Canadians being shipped home from overseas, and the dead.”
Canadians who were wounded in the war passed through Gander, tended and stabilized before being sent home. The dead also ended up there, where the soldiers, like McKenzie’s grandfathers, tended to them before sending them home for burial.
“We don’t know what he saw, because he never spoke of it,” McKenzie said. “But it was finding his scrapbooks, the photos and the stories, that made me realize that for my grandfather, the war was never over.”
The memories were still there, behind closed doors in his mind that her grandfather tried to never open, even when asked. And as time marches on, and the World War veterans pass on, that war, finally, can end — for the war will never be over for those who lived it.