It has been six days since witnessing, in Montreal, Basil LeBlanc’s celebration and validation by the Canadian Grenadier Guards, a unit he served with in World War Two. This was not an easy journey for a man who for over seventy years kept buried a secret that had been haunting him his whole life. For a man whose first words to me were: “I don’t talk about ‘it'” -“It” referring to World War Two, this was a remarkable journey of redemption.
When I met Basil in late September 2013 it was at a weekend WW II event in Stow Massachusetts where, for two days, I had some of my artwork on display. Working at my easel, Basil approached, speaking that line which was immediately followed by “because if I do, I tear up” whereupon he pointed to a glistening left eye, ready to spill its content.
Since that day, I have wondered many times, why this happened. Why our encounter took place. That first meeting led to his proclamation to his sons David and John who’d come to my easel to retrieve their dad: “I’ve said more to this man than anyone including me wife… and I don’t know why.” Last weekend in Montreal, we rehashed that day and the events since that first led to my painting his portrait to now, over a year later, him standing before a younger generation of company commanders to receive recognition for his war-time service in 1944-45. Why did this happen? Of all people to paint, why Basil? I had no clue what would unfold a year after asking to paint his portrait. All I knew was in my heart, his image should become part of this portrait tour.
Two weeks after slipping my business card into his son John’s hand with the request to send me a photograph of his dad, I received a heartfelt handwritten letter from Basil along with a wonderful photo of himself as a nineteen year old Grenadier. The jauntily affixed beret cocked off his forehead at an angle became a funny note of contention. Basil, after seeing a jpg of the painting in progress, emailed “god forbid this painting ever ends up in Canada, I’ll be whipped.” That youthful expression of cockiness had to be addressed. With a few brush strokes the beret was brought back to the proper regimental look: parallel to the eyebrows, two fingers width. That was a prophetic statement of concern because of course, now in Montreal along with Basil, the portrait was being unveiled as part of the ceremony.
“I don’t know why,” I kept saying to people, curious as to how it was we were all standing around at the Grenadier Guard armory awaiting Basil’s ceremony. “Why” had I chosen to paint Basil LeBlanc’s portrait? Was there some sort of divine intervention as many have suggested? I don’t know. The full ramifications of our joint journey together wouldn’t come out until later that day when in his acceptance speech, Basil revealed the painful story of guilt that had haunted him for seventy years.
We had been joking on the drive north from Massachusetts, the profound sayings by Yogi Berra, former Yankee baseball player and manager. “If you come to a fork in the road, take it” was one that I recited. It made me realize the portrait journey I am on, at times feels Quixotic and Berra-esque. Since starting this journey over three years ago, it is, in fact, all about taking those forks in the road.
This past weekend gave me more time with Basil. I learned more about his upbringing in remote Amirualt’s Hill Nova Scotia where electricity and plumbing were things of the future. When the depression hit “we did not have to fall down as far as many did as life [for us] was not too ‘high on the hog’.” Though living in the United States for the past sixty years, Basil’s strong Canadian roots emerge with each sentence. The nasal resonance was music to my ears.
Life was all about those forks in the road, never looking back thinking a choice was the wrong one. The choices we all make are why we are where we are and only in looking back can we piece the connections. “What if’s?” are a waste of time. “What IS!” is that fork we have chosen.
What led us to coming to Montreal was not revealed until Basil himself stood at the podium to receive not just his war time medals but what he’d come for especially: his “wound stripe”. Henry Gourdji, the retired commander who’d organized this gathering, in an email, told me that the most meaningful part of this event came when Basil heard he’d be receiving his “stripe”. Henry did not reveal why but did say that Basil cried.
On Saturday, November 8th at 2:30PM, Basil took the podium now decorated with his ribbon rack and clenched in his left hand was a small piece of green wool with a silver stripe on it. A fork in the road juncture lay before him. Basil took the fork. The significance of that stripe before this moment only two others knew: Henry and Basil’s wife Jeannette. It could have stayed within that small trio. Instead Basil stood firmly at the podium and while at first praising the hard work and dedication of all the medics who helped save lives, revealed the pain of seventy one years ago when a young corporal medic asked Basil if the mangled fingers on his right hand were self-inflicted. Stunned by his wound, stunned at the sight of his commanding officer being carried past, complexion green and missing a leg, Basil had no response. And it seems, neither did the Canadian Grenadier Guards when the war ended. The silence was misinterpreted by Basil as acknowledgment that the Guard believed the medic. Basil was too upset to pursue the issue which haunted him almost daily his entire life. It seems the paperwork at the Guards has simply fallen into a void.
“Now I feel whole again,” Basil told me afterward. Since our meeting over a year ago, our paths keep reconnecting, our forks in the road rejoin. I am too simple a person to understand why we met, why this happened. I am just a connection to something larger than life. And with each impending fork in the road, a choice will be made. And to quote Yogi Berra again: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.”