The first time I understood my life and my connection to the continuum that a family represents was in the hours following the birth of my daughter some 26 years ago. The occasion elevated me from the status of boy to man, from husband to father and in the hours after I recall standing on the deck—a glass of strong drink in my hand—staring at the stars and realizing that now, I understood.
This was a day that my father, grandfathers, great grandfathers, and all before had shared. Now we were all connected by a history that even had I wished to I could not escape. This dawn of fatherhood had brought them alive to me in a manner that changed my perspective on life. I was now part of a brotherhood of fatherhood.
A similar epiphany took place last week when a story appeared in the Ottawa Citizen about a group of people in Gainsborough, England, searching for the relatives of a couple of First World War Canadian aviators killed in action while defending Britain against German Zeppelin bombing raids. One of those young men was Lt. J.A. (Arthur) Menzies, my grandfather's younger brother and one of five Menzies boys and one girl raised in the home of Peter and Isabella Menzies in Ottawa. The reason for the search was that the grave markers, lovingly cared for by the community for the past 94 years, require some repairs and the kind folks of Gainsborough needed the family's permission to do so. We were immediately in touch and of course granted permission and offered to contribute to the cause.
Only one of the young Lt. Menzies' brothers—my grandfather—had a son. He was named, as you might expect, Arthur, in memory of the dashing young aviator who gave his life for King and country at the age of 22. Arthur is also one of my middle names and is also one of my son's middle names. My son is 22.
We had known of Lt. J.A. Menzies but much of the young man's story was hazy and lost in the fog of time. But in the days that followed last week's story and contact with the good folks in Gainsborough, the story burst to life. Suddenly I was over at my mother's house, copying every photo that survived and sharing them with folks in England. My brother found the old photo of Lt. Menzies and his gunner airborne over England in their FE2, push-prop fighter bomber, and details emerged about the Royal Flying Corps' 33 Squadron and its collection of South Africans, Britons, Canadians, Argentinians, and Australians that must, in their day, have carried the sort of swagger that modern society reserves—or at least reserved—for astronauts. Despite the fact that Lt. Menzies' aviator's certificate was issued by Britain's "sporting authority," these were clearly men on the cutting edge of technology in their time.
Youtube clips of FE2s in action emerged. Press reports of the air battle that ensued and more pictures and stories criss-crossed the Atlantic all week as we discovered more, not only about our ancestor but about his friends, life in 1917, and the townsfolk who have so kindly honored their sacrifice for the better part of a century. We uncovered more details about his brothers on the front, his sister, his mother and father. They were all not just alive again in our memories. I realized they were alive again in us and that young Lt. Menzies was, in his 22 years, twice the man I'll ever be. And so were his brothers, raised with a set of values that formed a rock-ribbed strength of character. Best known was another of the aviator's older brothers, Rev. Major Albert Percy Menzies, awarded the Military Cross for bravery for his actions at Vimy Ridge but who went on to be one of Ottawa's longest-serving Presbyterian clergymen after the war. It was their faith, it turns out, that forged not just their character, but their courage. None of us can say we inherited those qualities. But the meaning of the words on the cross above the young man's final resting place are written in the stone of a family's and a culture's everlasting history.
"If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me."
Some things are eternal.