The first time I ever considered the fact that I would be old someday was when I met Gordon Burns. We shared part of a house in the North York district of Toronto some time ago, in the early 1990’s. He was 73, I was 22.
Gordon was tallish, wore big thick glasses, and walked with a slight stoop-shouldered gait. He ate soup and crackers every day, and grumbled about the economy, the weather, people, you name it. Sometimes I’d get so angry with his negativity that I’d leave the room politely. But most of the time I’d sit there and pick his brain about things, and he’d talk about his life, his family, and the war.
Yes, he was a war veteran; stormed the beach at Juno with the Scottish Essex Regiment. He bragged about how they fought all the way up into the Scheldt Estuary and freed the Dutch. After the war he stayed in England for three years and fell in love with a girl – but he decided to come back home to Canada; the worst decision of his life, he told me.
He’d shake his head, “Her father offered me his business. I should have stayed.”
The War, it seemed, was a big part of him, as I found out. Even though he said he didn’t like to talk about it, he usually did. I still tell people about his adventures; how he lied about his age to join the war effort, for one. How he came across the bodies of German soldiers that had turned black after death. How he took command of his unit because their Sergeant had fled and left them there behind enemy lines fighting off a German platoon, stuck in a barn for three days before re-enforcements could arrive, and how they survived on the sausages and old tomato preserves. He told me he woke up in the middle of a dead sleep to the heart-chilling whistle of an 88MM shell, and got up just in time to open the barn doors to let it pass out the other side though a window, saving everyone’s life. And, how only he and two other men in his unit survived those first chaotic and hellish days on Juno beach, with bullets whistling past his ears and gut-churning noise everywhere. He said he never attempted to make friends in the Army again after that.
“Were you scared?” I asked him once. I know it was a silly question, but I often wondered how it would feel to go to war, knowing you most likely will die, knowing it wasn’t a game of play tag that was going on; that the guy in the machine gun nest with the gun means to shoot me dead in my tracks.
“I was too busy to be scared. I just ran like hell,” he said, soberly. “A lot of guys just hid behind the hedgehogs on the beach crying for their mothers. Most of those guys died.”
When he wasn’t talking about the War, he was complaining about everything under the sun. He complained about his Hay Fever, he complained about Bank Machines (he still got dressed up once a week, spit-shined shoes, best tie, to go to the bank) and he complained about being old.
“Friggin’ old age,” I heard him say one day when his arthritis was acting up and he was in a miserable mood. “I’d like to be 40 again, that’s when you begin to know something in life.”
Gordon had all these plans; he wanted to make money, start a business, buy another house, a car; it was like he had the heart of a young man, but was trapped in an old man’s body. He was out of time but didn’t know it.
I moved out of the house two years later, and only saw Gordon sporadically after that. To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to see him; I was afraid of seeing him age, to become doddering and elderly. So I avoided him. It was an admission of my fear of getting old. So I eventually lost touch.
Two years ago I was reading the classified section of my local paper and came across an obituary for Gordon Burns. Died at age 89.
The man taught me how to scramble eggs, taught me about war, told me his whole life story, practically. We drank tea together, played cards, chess, spent lonely winter nights shooting the bull and listening to Glenn Miller records. He used to give me hell for that, wondered why I was listening to that ‘old-fashioned’ music and not Elvis or something. I suppose I was just trying to relate to him, and his era, and his time, a time that had long ago passed.
I considered that everything that Gordon had known, the music, the rituals, the language, the people, the traditions, had all vanished by the time he’d reached 73. And I considered that he knew he was out of his time, but was afraid to admit it. I considered that I would be cranky too if all that I’d know and loved had faded into obscurity, having been replaced by incomprehensible modern day goings-on.
I now understand Gordon more than I did then.
I still tell everyone I know about him.
He lives on.