Friday, March 11, 2005

The red, the gold and the blues

Canadians are still reeling from the blow of the loss of the four RCMP Officers who sacrificed their lives on the farm of another of those creepy, wicked, pathetic nutbars who as they choose to leave this life in a blaze of bullets, simultaneously accomplish their heart’s desire by managing to fit a world or so of pain and agony into the lives that lie in ruins behind them.
Forget his name. Forget his crimes, his rotten life and the self-absorbed paranoia that drove him from bad to worse to evil in the course of lifetime that achieved only middle age before it exploded in blood and flesh and pointlessness.
There may be pity to be felt for his family, but I’m honestly not sure how or where, or even why at this point. Why couldn’t an ex-con who sexually abused children, collected firearms, plotted and connived against his neighbours and local businesses, and threatened and shot at anyone who came near his land (and according to all reports lived an anger-soaked existence for at least the last 20, and possibly more years of his life) have long since been signed over to some provincially sanctioned, heavily padlocked institution for the criminally insane and hopelessly un-rehabilitateable ?
It boggles the mind.
But far more mind boggling was the sight of the families and friends and colleagues of the men whose sacrifice to the red serge coat and the goofy park ranger/Nelson Eddy broad-brimmed hat (not to mention the Sam Brown belt and old-fashioned, yet sexy yellow striped jodhpurs with tall brown boots) forced to say and pray their farewells and goodbyes to their loved ones much, much too soon.
Television and radio was chock-a-bloc with it yesterday; talk radio doing its thing by welcoming callers wishing to make comment on the tragedy, seemed surprised by the number of people rather vehemently objecting to the time, effort and superlatives wasted on men whose death and in whose numbers it didn’t strike these particular callers as all that note-worthy.
“They’re throwing around words like ‘hero’ and ‘sacrifice’,” said one disgruntled listener. “It’s wrong. And so is asking for a minute of silence; they have a minute of silence for the EVERYONE killed in wars on Remembrance Day – this was just 4 guys whose job it was to serve and protect. I’m sorry, but big deal!”
Yikes. Tough room.
And I don’t get it.
I am a left-wing, knee-jerk, bleeding-heart sob-sister, heavily hyphenated liberal, solidly against war and violence and brutality of every sort or stripe. Yet I am forever and for always in awe of those who choose work that provides a very genuine risk to their lives.
It is a horror to me (and a supreme weirdness) the fighting in Iraq and the boys and girls (and men and women) who far too often have come home in bits and pieces or not at all. I cannot imagine one second of the hideous fear of being under fire, or the discomfort and pain of living in the conditions of battle or siege. This war, that war – any war. The ugliness and pain and terror are so far beyond my ken that even writing about my admiration and curiousity about those who serve is hampered by a not un-exercised imagination, but by one that simply cannot grasp the depths of the awfulness.
I’ve known broken toes and tooth aches and this morning I bit my tongue really hard; I’ve feared meanness and rudeness and social cruelty – and once or twice experienced the heart-stopping, foot-itching, adrenaline-drenched terror of a car accident missed by inches or millimeters – but I don’t really have the first clue what real pain, or real terror, or genuine fear that my number is up even remotely feels like.
Canada is no Iraq – hell, we’re no Texas – but we have our own dangerous domestic crazies, our own gun-lovers, and in hundreds, even thousands of little rural communities where marauding, stock-killing wild animals are a reality, firearms and their use and need must be as prevalent per capita as in the worst crime-ridden areas of any big city you care to mention. Or avoid.
(I have seen huge raccoons conducting fist fights and love-making sessions outside my bedroom window and the odd skunk slinking around downtown residential areas, and of course squirrels a-plenty, but outside the movies and the evening news have yet to see nature vs nature, or man vs nature in any significant way.)
So what I’m saying is that while it may not have been up there with storming the beach at Normandy, or fighting the Tet offensive, or standing on the wrong side (which actually, could have been either side) of the Maginot Line, that day at the farm would have been no picnic for the handful of officers who would certainly have been aware of the danger and venality of the terminally territorial man upon whose property they were standing on guard for us.
There actually was a time when I wanted desperately to be an RCMP officer. Granted, I was 10, but I wanted it with every fibre of my skinny 10 year old kid being. I wanted to ride the horses you see, and I could think of no other career outside of cowboy that could provide the basics. (And to be honest, even at 10 I was a pretty citified little kid, so cowboy was a last choice fallback position at best.)
There’s a whole story about it; I actually wrote it and had it published on the letters page of The Toronto Star.
(Along with a picture of myself taken by a staff photographer of such supreme awfulness I am even today pissed off at the lipstick and good will wasted on that snap.)
It was in response to a story about the sensitivity of a bunch of Mounties who essentially adopted as mascot a sweet American kid with a sad story and a lifelong admiration for the men in red. I wrote that I wasn’t surprised; I wrote that when I was 10 I had composed a letter to the head of the RCMP (in the neatest joined-together printing you ever saw, superimposed on faint pencil lines that had been drawn for guidance, and erased for sophistication) asking for details so that I might prepare to join when I came of age. I told him I knew how to groom and saddle a pony and that I could walk, trot, canter and gallop, could turn on the forehand and jump 2’ 6”. I was also prepared to muck out and clean tack. I was saying essentially, that except for the cruelties of fate (having been born so late in life) I was ready to serve.
With infinite patience and a sweetness and gentleness of tone, the senior officer wrote back informing me that since – unfortunately – women were not permitted to join the mounted ranks, that as qualified and suitable and altogether exemplary were my qualifications, I wouldn’t be able to follow my dream. He did add (and included pamphlets and brochures) that there were other positions I could hold – receptionist, telephone operator, stenographer… ‘ists’, ‘ators’ and ‘aphors’ only. But if I’d like to do ‘em, they’d be proud to have me.
It is a testament to his tact that the letter somehow made me feel special and it is further proof of his sensitivity that he returned my original letter in a separate note addressed to my mother for her to keep.
So I always had a special place in my heart for the Mounties and even when I had moved on career-wise, and even when women were permitted to join the mounted ranks, I maintained that soft spot.
When the letter appeared in The Star, I was to have yet one more encounter with a sensitive officer of the law. I received a phone call (which I still have on my voicemail 6 years later) and a beautiful handwritten note thanking me for my thoughts and sharing with me his love of the job. (I won’t mention names, but he was a former participant in the Musical Ride and at the time of writing a bigwig in national Security. If he is still alive, I have no doubt he would have been with the most senior of dignitaries at the Memorial Service in Edmonton.)
For those who didn’t see or weren’t aware of the incident itself and the magnificent and terrible ceremonies that have followed, suffice it to say it was horrendous. The cries of grief and loss both beautiful and dreadful - the sound of a thousand hearts breaking in unbearable harmony.
I don’t know much – and I certainly don’t know what it’s like to be in the military or to work in law enforcement – but I do know that I have many, many moments of silence in me for those who risk their lives so I can call into radio talk shows and complain about them whenever I damn well please.

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