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Speaking engagement results in profound meeting

DISPATCHES BY HERB PEPPARD

I had an emotional experience one evening, seven years ago. It was an incident I still find hard to explain. I met up with a complete stranger, and what followed both amazed and mystified me.

First, let me provide a little background leading up to this experience. I am a veteran of the Second World War. Because of this I have been asked many times  to be a guest speaker at various functions.

I’ve spoken at numerous legion branches, to young people in grade schools and high schools, at universities  and  for the past decade I’ve really enjoyed speaking at the Youth Leadership programs, sponsored by The Nova Scotia Royal Canadian Legion. This function is held every summer at the Dalhousie Agricultural Campus.

I’ve also spoken at the Rotary Club of Truro, the Lions Club and have been privileged to talk at a number of churches.

What do the audiences think about my speeches? Well, I’ll tell you a couple of things I’ve noticed. When  I speak to a classroom of high school students, they come into the classroom reluctantly and flop down at their desks. They likely think of all the things they’d rather be doing like texting, watching TV, playing games and other things.

However, the teacher stresses how very important it is to hear the elderly gentleman speak and what the teacher demands is law. And as I continue a wonderful transformation took place. The students seem to come alive. They were now really enjoying my life’s adventures. I related to them and enjoyed speaking in front of my young audience.

Another time, I was speaking at a legion gathering. There were many elderly people in the audience. Usually, I am very well received in this setting. However, on this particular occasion there was one elderly gentleman who looked very bored.

In many of my speeches I mix in a song or two, relative to my story, and this time I struck up the song, “It’s a long way to Tipperary …”

And  what a surprising effect this had on the bored, elderly gentleman. He sat bolt upright and was now sitting with a light of enthusiasm in his eyes. He burst out singing with the rest of us: “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary but my heart’s right there!”

My talk was inspiring to him, and having won over all of my audience, also to me.

Now, I’d like to tell you about my most memorable speaking engagement.

I had been invited the Royal Canadian Legion in Windsor. Two very good friends of mine, Ron Trowsdale and Ron Boyce, went with me.

Being a veteran, I felt very privileged to speak before such a group.  This was a group that would understand what I was talking about. These were veterans and the spouses of veterans. They had lived through the war years and had lost friends, comrades, family members and sweethearts.

When I spoke of fear they knew what I was talking about. When I spoke of being homesick they knew what I was talking about. When I spoke of how I felt when I was wounded they knew what I was talking about. When I started to sing a wartime song they knew that too.   

Not only did they know ‘The White Cliffs of Dover,’ but they all joined in singing it with me. We had a feeling of ‘togetherness’ that very few speakers enjoy with their audience. This was a very special time in my life, a time of joy and pride. We were the people who had made history. We were the proud Canadians who survived to tell about it.

I was humbled to receive a standing ovation from 200 people. Many came up to me later to shake my hand. I also appreciated the many hugs I got from the wonderful ladies.

Then, the most heart-warming experience of the entire, event-filled evening happened. A man was the last person in the lineup.  Maybe he was too shy to push in ahead of anyone. He was a veteran and that endeared him to me immediately.  He was tall and thin, with a shy smile on his elderly face.  He took my hand and held it.  I, in turn, held his hand.

In my speech I had told about my wartime experiences. Now, my new-found friend poured out his heart, telling me of his war experiences.

I had this strange feeling that he was opening up a door that had been closed since he had returned from overseas 60 years ago. Maybe he felt that no one would understand what he had endured. However, because of my speech, he knew, even though we had never met, that we were comrades. He knew I would understand. I learned his name was Percy Smith.

He told me about his army life in war-torn Italy. I had served in Italy also. All the while we talked our hands were clasped. At other times I would have felt self-conscious holding another man’s hand, but not this time. As I looked into his eyes and listened to his war-time experiences I could see the Italian refugees fleeing from their homes. They carried their belongings in their hands and strapped to their backs and they carried their precious children clutched in their arms.                                                               

As I looked into his eyes I heard the crash of shells. I heard the cries of “medic, medic, medic” as friend and comrade gasped out his final breath. As I looked into his eyes I could see this common man, a man much like myself, silently pray.  Pray to God, he would survive this hell so he could return home to family and friends. Yes, and also return home to a special girl he hoped would say she would be his wife.

As I looked into his eyes I saw a man, wounded in body and mind return home safely. What a joy and relief to put behind him the fear of death – the uncertainty of life. As I looked into his eyes I saw a gentle, loving family man, a man who raised a family and gained the respect of all who knew him.

We still held hands. Our lives had run parallel to each other. Our lives seemed to coincide. To form into one life.  Then our lives drifted apart.

This holding of hands was one of the most emotional times of my life.  Percy had lived my life. I had lived Percy’s life. We could have been the same person. How many Canadian soldiers were like us?                                                                                                             

Herb Peppard lives in Truro. His column appears regularly in the Truro Daily News.

Organizations: The Nova Scotia Royal Canadian Legion, Rotary Club of Truro, Lions Club Truro Daily News

Geographic location: Tipperary, Windsor, Italy White Cliffs Dover Truro

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  • Wanda Mosher
    Wanda Mosher
    September 23, 2013 - 19:04

    Thank you Herb for sharing this experience with us. I truly felt goosebumps from head to toe while reading this article.