Writing a Remembrance Day story is especially bittersweet after the passing of a special veteran, my idea-guy.
Related story here: One in a century
Related story here: Trail honours Vimy Ridge
Related story here: Granddaughter pins first poppy
Related story here: Poem recounts life of an air gunner
For the past several years I would talk with Vern Schneider at the Trail Legion’s first poppy pinning and he would whip out his iPad to show me what he was reading or photos he came across that might be of interest for a remembrance story.
In fact, back in 2015 after the first poppy was pinned at the Trail Cenotaph, Vern showed me a long-lost poem written by Trail veteran and air gunner Francis Otto Fertich (Frank). Frank passed away the previous Thanksgiving, but with Vern’s help, the poem and Frank’s life became the Trail Times Nov. 11 commemorative story that year.
Then in 2016, Vern began dropping by with reminders, and ideas, about honouring the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge. Before Trail held its vigil at the Cenotaph in April 2017, Vern’s suggestion led to the Times’ “One in a Century” story about the great sacrifice of Private Lancelot Appleton, 24, a soldier from Castlegar killed in action on July 10, 1917 in the Vimy Sector.
He had great insight about the history of war and was always generous in sharing what he had learned.
Vern, 80, passed away in early October. That was only days from when he would have been bestowed with the first poppy pinned in Trail.
“I have learned that we have to try and remember the past while trying to fix the future,” Vern told the Times in October 2014. “It doesn’t seem to be going that way though. It is a heck of a world out there right now, but I have taken my kids to the Remembrance Day parades and things since they were young, trying to teach them to be appreciative. The poppies are a good way to remember the past. It means quite a bit to me (to see them).”
On Oct. 23, Vern’s fellow Legion members solemnly gave him the honour by posthumously applying the first poppy on his photograph.
Interestingly, while the Trail Times was at the Legion taking the picture, a book re-surfaced that Vern wrote about the Boer War (1899-1902) called “Kootenay Contingent Strathcona’s Horse.”
(Vern was a peacekeeper in Lord Strathcona’s Horse Armed Regiment in the Gaza Strip and Germany from December 1957 to January 1967)
The 200+ pages, typeset and bound with plastic rings, are Vern’s compilation of local history that began when he found the names of 17 men from Rossland who enlisted in Nelson in February 1900. Eventually the book grew to include history of 48 men in the Kootenay Boundary who enlisted in the Strathcona’s Horse from Feb. 5 to Feb. 10 that year.
Vern, a past president of the Trail branch, was one of many treasured local veterans who remained dedicated Legion members until their deaths. And, as is life, each year the march of veterans to the Trail Cenotaph dwindles.
The Trail Legion now has 14 veterans from the Second World War, as opposed to 72 in 2010.
Their life stories are always inspiring. Shared war experiences, however, those can be near impossible to fathom.
Which brings to mind Clifford Dawson (Cliff). Early in the year, the Times was contacted by a bus commuter who told us about the incredible stories she would hear from a fellow passenger. She asked us to write about this engaging person.
That gentleman was Cliff Dawson, 93.
Sadly, he passed away one week before Vern.
However, Cliff was pinned the first poppy in 2013 and that year, the Times wrote a story about his harrowing experience as a prisoner of war at the age of 19. He was part of the platoon led by Sergeant Armando Gri, a young man raised in the Trail Gulch, near where a memorial now stands in his name.
Gri and a handful of prisoners escaped from a box car that was transporting them to a stalag, but Cliff did not make it out.
After six months of starvation and forced labour in the German camp, he was freed on April 16, 1945. Cliff was so emaciated and weak, later at a Canadian hospital, his brother barely recognized him.
It’s overwhelming to think of these hardships when the spry man I met in October 2013, then 88 years, had such a gracious spirit and wonderful sense of humour.
“This year, my grandpa’s experiences are especially poignant to me,” his granddaughter Emily Dawson said that day. “Because he decided to enlist at the age of 17 and I turned that age this summer.
“I don’t know if that is something I would have the courage to do. It reminds me just how lucky I am today.”
Vern and Cliff are just two of the many veterans from this region who gave their service for this country. For us.
So this Remembrance Day it is hoped a big crowd will attend the Trail Cenotaph to honour all our vets.
Lest We Forget.