Sunday, 11 November 2012

In Memory

Don McGourlick (age 20)
Note: This is a personal post, and not related to educational theory and practice.

For the first time since I can remember I am not attending a Remembrance Day Ceremony this year. My grandfather (who was a WWII veteran ) passed away on Oct. 26th, and this will be the first time that I haven't called him on Nov. 11th to personally thank him for his service. I didn't even go to our school ceremony on Friday, which as most teachers will tell you is always a bittersweet experience as we recount the horrors and sacrifice of war and yet are filled with hope for the future by the sincerity and respect that our students demonstrate. My grandfather never attended Remembrance Day Ceremonies. He never spoke of his experiences in the war to me. It was also his wish that he not have a funeral service, so instead of going to a ceremony this year, I'm going to write this post at 11am. Forgive me for its lack of polish. 

My grandfather and the rest of his crew (pilot not in photo)
Donald Francis McGourlick enlisted in the RCAF in Oct. 1941 (he was 20). He was a tail gunner who flew in bombing raids over Europe until 1943 when on the night of Aug. 7th his plane was shot down over occupied France. Four of the seven man crew (including the pilot) were killed in the crash. Don parachuted out and managed to evade capture and he eventually connected with members of the French underground. Over the course of the next 3 months Don was moved around France and hidden in various locations including a castle and in the attic of a house that had been commandeered by the Nazis. He was given a fake French identity (as a deaf/mute florist!) and finally smuggled back across the English channel under a pile of fish in a commercial fishing boat. During the time that he was gone, back home he was declared missing and then eventually presumed dead. He had a copy of his own death certificate and his name ended up on the cenotaph in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. 

When my grandfather returned safely to England and then to Canada, he and my grandmother decided to get married, and they set the date for Dec. 18th, 1943. The night before their wedding my grandfather received a telegram that he was getting sent back over seas. At that point they had to decide whether they should still get married. My grandma jokes that her reasoning was, "the whole church is booked and everybody is already here; we have to get married!" So they went ahead with the ceremony and within the week my grandfather was back in Dorval and then England. The day after he landed in England he was back in a plane with a crew whose tailgunner had been killed the previous day.  Shortly after his return to England he was moved into a Pathfinder squadron and he flew bombing raids with them until the end of the war. He was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his service. After the war, my grandfather returned to France to thank those who had helped him and found that the Nazis had executed people in towns where they discovered that he had been smuggled through.

In front of the cenotaph in Moose Jaw SK (with his name on it)

Of course the man in the above story is not really the man I knew as my grandfather. When he recently passed away, I was working on writing his obituary and I had to ask my grandmother a few questions. She half jokingly said "Well I can read you his first obituary if you like". I know she wasn't serious, but what struck me is how little use the obituary of a 22 year old would be in comparison to the life of someone who has lived to be 91. How much more of his life happened over the next 69 years, and how short his 22 year old obituary was! I'm realizing now (funny how clarity comes when you are writing) that this blog isn't just a tribute to what my grandfather (and so many many others) did during the war, it is really a tribute to the life that he lived after he returned. After the war my grandfather had 2 children (and 4 grandchildren). He returned to university. He became a pharmacist. He lived in many places in Canada and overseas. He flew with Search and Rescue in the lower mainland. He was married to my grandmother for almost 69 years.  

For my part, he was a kick-ass grandpa. My memories of him are of hockey rinks every winter in our backyard, of his "workshop" in the basement where he let us play around with everything from construction supplies to paints and clay to musical instruments to slingshots. I remember numerous fishing trips when I was home "sick" and I remember him picking my brother and I up after school in his VW van with a fridge full of chocolate bars.  He could shoot a gun, build the best tree forts ever and recite classic poetry by heart. He taught me the importance of both creativity and work ethic. His impact on my life has been profound and I think despite everything that he went through, the greatest tribute to his life is that all four of his grandchildren (who are well into their adult lives) were present at 2 in the morning when he passed away. So I will write today to honour my grandfather, and what he contributed to my life, but also use his life to respect those men and women whose obituaries really were written when they were so very young.  Four members of my grandfather's flight crew never had granddaughters who could reflect on their lives, and all the soldiers on that cenotaph in Moose Jaw were denied so many future experiences. Of course this is just a tiny tiny fraction of the lives that we have lost in so many wars. It is actually my grandmother who has reminded our family many times over the past few weeks that we should be looking at my grandfather's death with gratitude for the time we actually had. We are the lucky ones. 


  1. Once again, your words leave me breathless. I too, remember the VW van and your grandparents picking you and J up after school. I am so sad to hear of his passing, but 69 years of marriage? Does it get any better than that? I'm sending a big hug your way.

  2. He certainly was a kick-ass grandpa and truly a wonderful man. I'm sorry to hear of his passing, but so happy that you got to have him in your life for so long. Love to you, little bro, and grandma!

  3. Hey, not sure if you got my other message... Uncle Don was my grandfathers brother (Bill). I'm Gerry's daughter... Anyway, you can find me on Facebook if u have an account: Sarah summers benmagor