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Paavo soldier

For my uncle, Johannes Paavo (“Call me J.P.”) Kaskela (1923-1985)

I

Ten soldiers stand upon a hill, not quite
at ease, a row in shadow, uniformed.
Arms across each other’s shoulders, rifles
lie in heaps upon the ground, I wonder
if that is a crime. Something feels not right,
as though somebody has been misinformed.

A bugle plays a distant taps, stifles,
though not quite, the scratch of match. I blunder
forward toward the light; I recognize that
face, though he is younger now, and blond. Come
closer, says the soldier in the center.

Meet my friends, Giuseppe, Klaus, and Lom Sat,
over here, Vasily, Che, Wonder Bun—
we call him that cuz his dad’s a baker.

II

My uncle stops me halfway up, though I
can see the soldiers clear enough, ten guys
just barely men in khaki, olive, brown,
black. From all the fronts, they are enemies.
Welcome, kid, to the Hill of Do or Die.
As you can see, it’s not much of a prize.

Why are you there? I ask. The muddy ground
sucks at my feet. Flags hang from leafless trees:
rising sun; Union Jack; the red, white, green
of Italy. To keep the shame away,
he says, from those who still remember us.

I’m not ashamed! I’m proud of all you’ve been
through, what you’ve done!—Then, we’re winning. Today,
we’re gonna show you what’s more dangerous.

III

The ten soldiers leave their weapons behind
and lead me to barracks of cold red brick.
They joke and shove as brothers do, until
we step inside. On every ragged cot,
entire families huddle, heads down—blind
to us, civilians, they look thin and sick.

Worse, all mouths are gagged, every voice made still.
How do they eat? I ask.—They don’t. You’re not
seeing people. This is love of country,
everyone’s birthright, turned Prisoner of War,
choked by labels of coward and treason.

I was Giuseppe’s guard; Lom Sat, sentry
to Neville and the Aussies. Ask what for,
and they take you out back, end of season.

IV

You’ll hear lots today about sacrifice,
the men, the boys and gals who bravely died.
I tell you now, the ones who lived, we had
it worse. Wonder Bun and me were neighbours
till the war. We tipped outhouses, stole ice,
but his last name was Capelli—fate fried.

People think vets don’t talk because war’s bad.
That’s only part of it. What sticks like burrs
is how we’re trained to shut our hearts, pretend
our orders aren’t stupid, wrong, and then
get bits of ribbon pinned—for what? Silence?

Go now to the cenotaph. My dead friends
will thank you, but remember what we ten
have shown you today. None of war makes sense.

~~~

My uncle served in WWII at the Canadian Armed Forces base in Petawawa, Ontario, as a guard to Allied prisoners of war. All these years, we assumed, because no one talked about it, that the POWs were captured German soldiers. Thanks to my sister’s research, we have since learned that the prisoners were Italian-Canadian civilians, interned as enemy aliens, just as Japanese-Canadians were interned in western Canada.

Our uncle was the gentlest soul imaginable. He was an artist, a comic, an all-round fun guy who had no quarrel with anyone. I can only imagine how he felt as a soldier, being forced to treat his own countrymen as enemies. On this Day of Remembrance, I think if Uncle Paavo were here, he would say something like, “Call nobody a coward. Call no one a traitor. We do things because we think we have no choice. Everyone deserves to love his country. I loved mine.”

Here is a painting by my uncle of the outside of the Petawawa camp.

Paavos Petawawa painting

© Elaine Stirling, 2014

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