Waiting in Line

Waiting in Line

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Waiting in Line

God bless you all. This is your victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land.

Winston S. Churchill

As I approached the Peace Tower at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, I saw it: a line of orderly, polite, patient Canadians—waiting. Without a word, I joined the line and many more followed me. The young man in front of me carried a backpack large enough to carry four weeks’ worth of food and clothes. He looked like a student, and I imagined he had come a long way to stand in this line. An old soldier, wearing a uniform covered in medals, bypassed the long line. With the assistance of a family member, he went straight to the front without incident. As he passed I could only smile at him.

The woman behind me, who had just arrived from work, approached the RCMP officer on duty. She returned to tell the rest of us, “It will be about twenty minutes. I suppose I can wait twenty minutes for him,” she said with a smile. “He did give his life for us.” Several of us murmured in agreement.

The Ottawa papers had been full of the story. A Canadian soldier—who had left Canada on a World War I troop ship—had died in France in 1917, and his name had been lost forever. Four years ago the Royal Canadian Legion embarked on a mission to bring him home, and a few days ago, his remains had been exhumed and then carried to the Vimy War Memorial in France by a French honour guard. In the emotional ceremony that followed he was turned over to a Canadian honour guard. Then this soldier with no name was flown home to Canada in a maple casket covered in a Canadian flag.

The next day his remains were to be laid to rest at the Canadian War Memorial. But today he lay in state in his flag-draped casket on Parliament Hill, to be honoured by all Canadians as a hero. The 27,500 Canadian mothers who lost their sons to war during the twentieth century, and never knew where their bodies lay, would now have a place to come.

As we waited in line, the flag on Parliament Hill flew at haft-mast and the Peace Tower bells tolled the quarter hour—a dirge for Canada’s war dead that sent chills up and down my spine.

I was so proud to be a Canadian that day as I paid my respects. The number of people there astonished me. For me it was a very personal pilgrimage, but it was personal for thousands of others as well. As I stood in line I wondered, Could this passionate display of quiet respect happen anywhere else?

When I reached the doors of the building, I climbed the steps. The last time I had climbed those steps I was a wide-eyed child taking my first tour of the Parliament Buildings. But all tours were cancelled on this special day. Instead, I was greeted by a very young cadet who gave me a pamphlet that told the story of the Unknown Soldier and his long journey back home. As we entered the Hall of Honour and drew close, suddenly all conversation in the line stopped. We stood in silent awe and reverence.

Six soldiers in full-dress uniform from all the divisions of the Canadian military protected his remains. Keeping a twenty-four-hour-a-day vigil, these soldiers—men and women, young and old—stood surrounding the coffin with heads bowed in respect for their fallen comrade. Clergy members from all religions, including the First Nations communities, participated in the vigil. Flowers and wreaths from Prime Minister Chrétien and Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, along with many others, cascaded over the casket. Other visitors had left poppies behind. The image was overwhelming.

A veteran signalled the student in front of me to proceed to pay his respects to the Unknown Soldier. As he walked forward, I suddenly realized that I was at a funeral and unprepared. I didn’t have a poppy or even some tissue! As I waited, my anxiety built and I wondered, What do I do? What do I say? How long should I stand there? These questions rushed through my head. The nod came from the veteran and I moved forward unsteadily.

My anxieties disappeared as I moved close to the casket. What I did was unimportant; my presence was paramount. Suddenly I became aware of all the energy in the room. It wasn’t just sorrow or remorse, it was pride! The energy washed over me like a wave. In that moment, I knew I was not alone paying my respects, my whole family was there behind me. My great-grandfather, who fought in both World Wars, stood beside me and saluted. My grandfather, who was killed in World War II, held my hand. Although I probably only spent a moment there in front of that coffin, in many ways it was a lifetime. As I left, I signed the registry for all of us. Over the three days he lay in state, 10,000 Canadians waited in line to pay their respects to the Unknown Soldier.

The next day, during an emotional, hour-long ceremony, the Unknown Soldier was lowered into his final resting place at the Canadian War Memorial. An honour guard of the Royal Canadian Regiment fired three volleys as the coffin disappeared into the new Tomb for the Unknown Soldier. In silence, the audience watched as a silver cup containing soil from the Unknown Soldier’s former grave site in France was emptied over the coffin. A parade of veterans representing Royal Canadian Legions across the country followed, scattering soil from every province and territory onto the coffin. Nine buglers played the “Last Post” and Ottawa held two minutes of silence. Then, four CF-18 fighters thundered past overhead, and by the time “O Canada” was sung, most of the audience was in tears.

When I got home, I called my grandma in Uxbridge and recounted every little detail of my time waiting in line for the Unknown Soldier. I needed a hug from her. And even though we were far apart we shared a virtual hug over the telephone lines.

On that day, I learned how very proud I am to be a Canadian.

Katherine Cornell
Markham, Ontario

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