Doing what I do for a living, I'm afforded a kind of luxury that's not exactly doled out to just anyone.
My job is writing community news and crafting stories about the real lives we live or have lived here in this part of the world. I've been doing this for almost 15 years, and it's safe to say I've got enough material for a book or two, should that time ever come.
In my role as a weekly news journalist, I've been fortunate enough to meet some incredible people over the years who've told me some truly eyebrow-raising tales, so many of them based on the sheer strength of the human spirit. It should surprise no one that many of these stories came from soldiers and veterans who enlisted and went to war, coming home with a head full of memories both good and bad, and sometimes frightening.
Remembrance Day is next week, and on that note, I can tell you that two men immediately come to mind when I think of Canada's Veterans and the roles they took on in wartime.
On a sunny Friday afternoon back in early May 2013, I drove down to the village of Elbow to visit the home of Mr. Art Knutson to talk about his time spent during World War II. Art was a tail gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force's 434 Bluenose Squadron, going out on operational flights over Germany in a Lancaster bomber.
I don't think I was sitting on his couch for longer than five seconds before Art said to me, "I suppose there were four different times over there that I should've been killed." My eyes remained lifted and the hair on my arms effectively shot up when he shared that deadly and yet matter-of-fact statement. From there, Art recollected stories of his time spent overseas and his obsession with anything air-related. For the aviation fan, there was no other choice but the Air Force, telling me that whenever he saw an airplane, he'd stop whatever he was doing and watch until it disappeared in the sky.
Knutson's admissions and recollections painted a picture that I thought was unique. Here was this 88-year old man, telling stories of violence, explosions and an abundance of outright cruelty seen during times of combat, and he's sharing his viewpoints with a man who he'd just met face-to-face for the first time that day. I was awestruck, to say the least.
And those four times in which Art should've been killed over there? Well, let's count the deadly ways.
In Mont-Joli, the engine quit in the plane he was in, sending the aircraft straight toward the St. Lawrence River. However, they managed to make it just to the end of the runway. The second time was during a bomb operation in Germany, which saw Knutson's aircraft catch fire over the sea in Holland after getting hit with shrapnel. The pilot said to get ready to jump after one fire extinguisher produced nothing, but Art wasn't sure he could do it. He reached for a second extinguisher, and it was this one that managed to put the flames out. Art's third brush with death saw him converting from two engine to four engine bombers. One night, him and his buddies went out for drinks, and one of his friends said afterward that he wasn't going to the shelter after an air raid warning came through. Art stayed and tried convincing his friend, and they both ran like hell when a bomb hit them and blew up the toilet that was located just outside their door, about ten feet away. Finally, Art's fourth and final dance with death took place when he was bombing one of the Frisian Islands. About 200 feet or less behind him, two airplanes collided and out of 14 men, only seven parachutes came out. If Knutson had only been two seconds later, that would've been the end of him.
Suffice to say, Art told me that was the last bombing raid that he made. "No more danger," he said. Let's just say that I understood completely where he was coming from, having heard all of his stories leading up to it.
I sat with Art for a while longer, and then he showed me a framed photo of the aircraft bomber that he flew. I told him thank you and we said our goodbyes. More than eight years later, Art's story has stayed with me. I think it always will.
On a chilly Saturday afternoon back in February 2018, I was invited down to the community hall in the village of Lucky Lake as a man named Donald Couch was celebrating his 100th birthday. I'll be the first to say that I really wasn't expecting a whole lot to come out of this story. A photo, some words from the man himself, bada-bing, bada-boom, end of story.
When I arrived to the building, I was stunned at what I saw and what I experienced that day along with what had to be hundreds of others.
A cavalcade of people had come out to mark Couch's iconic birthday, but it wasn't the amount of people that nearly knocked me for a loop. It was the respect being shown to this World War II veteran, and the dressed-up community hall, and the mountain of gifts and birthday cards, and the sheer presentation of all of it that made me literally go, 'Wow!'
In speaking with Donald himself, I found a man who was so approachable and beyond grateful for such an outpouring of respect and admiration. He had a heck of a lineup of people waiting to speak with him, so I didn't hold things up for too long, but I was glad to speak to this man and get his thoughts on what it was like to reach such a pinnacle age.
With that, a gigantic bomber flew over the Lucky Lake hall in one of the biggest and most attention-grabbing signs of respect and admiration that I've ever seen. I remember sharing the video clip I'd recorded of the fly-by, and seeing it rack up the viewing numbers like crazy. When all was said and done, it had been watched over 15,000 times.
Both Art and Donald are gone now. Art passed away on May 24, 2017 at the age of 92 years, and Donald made it to the age of 103 before he passed on September 1 of this year. Two more of Canada's veterans now departed, but I certainly won't forget them or their stories. These two men were brave enough to serve their country, and for that, we should be grateful.
I'm grateful to have talked to both men and to have told their tales in the pages of this newspaper.
I won't forget them.
I'll always Remember.
For this week, that's been the Ruttle Report.