Wednesday, 11 November 2015

On the Highway of Heroes

On this Remembrance Day, I want to share something I wrote a few years ago.

The Highway of Heroes, you really had to experience it first hand to fully understand the impact, I'm glad I was fortunate to have the opportunity to pay my respects.


            I went and stood on a bridge one night.
I stood, one person, part of a crowd and yet alone. All of us watching the ebb and flow of traffic from a Highway 401 overpass. We were facing east, the sky a summer blue becoming more pink and gold as day faded to evening. No one interested in the panorama of nature’s beauty behind us.
            I stood alone and waited, listening to the sounds about me. Some people spoke in quiet conversation, some stood silent and serious, alone with their feelings.
            I could hear the traffic as it passed beneath the bridge. Drivers on the highway acknowledged those standing on the bridge by flashing their lights and honking their horns. Those standing vigilance on the bridge are there to recognize the fallen soldiers and are in turn recognized by the drivers as they motored on their way.
            The 172 kilometer stretch of the 401 Highway in Ontario, from CFB Trenton to Toronto, has officially been renamed the Highway of Heroes in remembrance of Canada’s fallen soldiers. In their long and final journey home the bodies of soldiers killed in the line of duty are expatriated to CFB Trenton and then transferred to the Toronto Centre for Forensic Sciences.  Each and every one of these soldiers, killed in Afghanistan since Canada’s mission began there in 2002, have traveled along that same route, along that same highway.
            This has created a unique opportunity for those of us who live along that route, along that
highway. The opportunity to show our support for the troops and to pay our respects to the soldiers who lost their lives in service to their country. It is an opportunity and a responsibility, for it’s as if those of us who live in this small portion of Ontario are standing for all Canadians, from all corners of the country.
            Residents, police officials and firefighters gather on 401 overpasses along the route, as the motorcade carrying the bodies of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan, makes its way to the coroner’s office in Toronto.
            I don’t know how long we stood in wait that day but suddenly I could sense a change in the mood of the crowd. There was no further conversation as the highway seemed to empty. All I could see was a long line of headlights led by Ontario Police vehicles, their lights flashing but their sirens silent until they reached the overpass. The motorcade drove on in eerie silence. As it passed we all turned to watch it continue on its way west until it disappeared into the setting sun.
            The crowd silently dispersed, heading north and south off the bridge, to cars parked along the road. As I walked the distance to my car I noticed the number of license plates with the red poppy veteran’s insignia. Soldiers from a different time, survivors from a different war, come to pay their respects to fallen soldiers from this time and this battle.
            I fight back tears, as did many, in the walk from the bridge, thinking of the families of these brave soldiers. I wonder if they can feel the outpouring of respect and support from all the people lined up, bridge after bridge along the highway. I hope they feel some sense of comfort from these strangers and hope they feel a little less alone along their journey.
            I have stood on that bridge in a winter storm when the air was so cold, the wind so harsh that I could no longer feel my hands or feet. The repatriation ceremony was delayed and our wait became painfully long but no one left the bridge, no one gave up to seek shelter and warmth because we had not yet done what we had come there to do.
            I have stood on that bridge and cried, the procession passing under the overpass, as a piper played Amazing Grace.
            I stood on that bridge and watched as a military vehicle, traveling east to CFB Trenton, pulled off the highway and three soldiers made their way up to the bridge. They shook the hand of every person, thanking us on behalf of all the military personnel.
            I have stood on that bridge with the mother, sister and friends of soldiers stationed overseas, all of them there to pay their respects…and hoping never to see the view of the bridge from a military motorcade.
            And on one cold winter day I stood and watched as the procession approached, and saw a hand, covered in a red mitten,  extend out the window of the limousine to wave in acknowledgment to those of us on the bridge.
            There is always some small occurrence to make each time on the bridge unique and yet the feelings of sadness, of respect and of pride are always the same.

1 comment:

Connie Cook said...

Great story. You need to hang onto this one. Chicken Soup for the Soul series is doing a Canadian theme for 2017. (150 years since Confederation) and it would be a great fit for their style.