In Remembrance

In remembrance, this day, November 11, 2016, of all those men and women who have fought and died in service to their country, securing peace and freedom for friends and family, where ever they may be.
This day always reminds me of those people in my family who have served in the military. My maternal grandfather, Percy (Tobe) McFarquhar, 1893-1967, drove ambulance in World War I. He join the Canadian forces in 1915 and served until 1918. I have also had other family members serving variously in other conflicts around the world.
If I’m trying to find meaning in a day or an event, I often turn to my favourite authors. Here’s a passage from C S. Lewis’ spiritual autobiography. Lewis, as did many other young men of his generation, went to war at the age of nineteen, the same age as many of the first-year students I teach every year.

The war itself has been so often described by those who saw more of it than I that I shall here say little about it. Until the great German attack came in the Spring we had a pretty quiet time. Even then they attacked not us but the Canadians on our right, merely “keeping us quiet” by pouring shells into our line about three a minute all day. I think it was that day I noticed how a greater terror overcomes a less: a mouse that I met (and a poor shivering mouse it was, as I was a poor shivering man) made no attempt to run from me. Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gum boots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother. I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man: particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. …
But for the rest, the war–the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E., the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet–all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard–so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peace-time poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
(XII. Guns and Good Company)

A Ghost Walk on the University of Alberta Campus

I’ve always believed that ghosts haunted the University of Alberta campus. Last week, I found out I was right.
Last week, I went with some friends to take in the UofA ghost walk. We gathered in front of the Rutherford House on Saskatchewan Drive—a surprising forty people for a cool night in late October. Our guide stood on the steps of the house and outlined our walk. She told us about the house itself, Alexander Cameron Rutherford and his family who moved into the house in 1911. She encouraged us to visit the house, where, if you listen carefully, you can hear the ghost of a little boy and his ball who has haunted the second floor of the Rutherford House since the 1980s.
Our walk took us across campus to the Power Plant, where we learned about Dr. Carl Clarke, an early researcher into the oil sands, whose lab-coated ghost still wanders the building. We headed next to Pembina Hall on the west side of campus, where we learned about the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic in Edmonton, and the bodies that were temporarily piled in the basement of the building. Finally, we walked all the way BAC across campus to the Emily Murphy House, where our guide told us about Emily Murphy, the Famous Five, and the early days of Alberta politics. People say you can sometimes still see the ghost of Emily Murphy, and sometimes, you can hear the kettle whistling in the room that was once the kitchen.
There was much more to our walk, as it was a historical tour as well as ghost walk, and our guide had many stories about the early days of the UofA. You can find more stories about campus ghosts here.
I wouldn’t say I’m overly sensitive to ghosts. I’ve been inside Glamis Castle in Scotland, which is supposed to be one of the most haunted castles in the country, and I didn’t feel too bothered. One gets a sense of days long passed in such a place, but I never felt or heard anything specific.
But I’m still prepared to believe such stories. As I said, I’ve always thought the UofA had its ghosts. If you are in the Humanities Building at night, as people clear out of the building, you will begin to feel the oppressive silence of the place, like something pressing on your ears. You will start watching, listening, and looking around corners. And sometimes, if you turn quickly enough, you might…

A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall


If you love stories of King Arthur, or any books about Roman-Britain, you are likely to encounter a reference to Hadrian’s Wall. This is the wall the Romans built after Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britain in 122 CE, to mark the northern border of the Empire. It ran nearly eighty miles, east to west, stood fifteen feet high—not including the parapet wall—and  marked by guard posts every mile or so.
We drove down from Glasgow to Carlyle, following the signs until we found the wall. We were in the middle of fields of grazing sheep, bordered by stone fences, and we parked by an after school care. Kids were running and playing games, and there was the wall—right across the road.
We crossed over and clambered onto the wall. It was only a couple of feet high at that point, and we walked along the broken stones of the top until it began to get higher. Farther along, we stopped to look at a squared-off section that was clearly one of the guard-posts punctuating the wall. We kept going and found a higher section where we could climb. We sat about ten feet up, talked and wondered about the soldiers who sat and watched on the wall. It must have been intensely boring for those men, standing and staring out over hills and woods, day and night, in wind and sun and rain, and wondering if the barbarians would ever come out of the north.
Much of the wall is now gone, and I wondered at first about the lack of fallen stones. It’s built of roughly squared stones, mudded together with a mixture of clay and who knows what. This wall has stood for nearly two thousand years, and you can imagine what the people thought who lived beside the wall ever since the Romans left. If they wanted to build a house, a pen for cattle or sheep, or even a church, they had a supply of building stones ready to hand.
After a while, we got back in the car and headed for the museum nearby. We  saw a couple of short videos about life as a Roman soldier on the frontier, and checked out the gear that was part of a Roman soldier’s kit: knives, spears, short swords, cooking pots, and the wooden frame to carry it all. We then drove farther on to see the fort at Vindolanda, a working archeological site with another museum attached. It was fascinating to learn about the fort and its history. Getting a close look at the range of artifacts from the site was fascinating as well, especially the alter to the weather god, Jupiter Dolichenus,, a four-foot carven stone alter, discovered at the site in 2009.
Visiting both the museum and Vindolanda was an education, but climbing over the ruins of Hadrian’s wall itself fired my imagination in a different way. More than the history of the fort and the wall, I thought about the people this wall was meant to keep out—the northern tribes, those people who occupied all of what we now know as Scotland. They must have come here, hunting parties on foot or horseback, only to see a wall being built across their land by the Latin-speaking intruders who would block the way into the south for the next two centuries.