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A Chance Meeting Leaves a Lasting Impression

October 13, 2016

It was about a year ago when I decided that I would like to visit Beaumont-Hamel on July 1st, this year to participate in the 100th anniversary and commemoration of the battle that forever altered the course of Newfoundland. The story is well-known. More than 800 young Newfoundland soldiers fought the battle and fewer than 70 would survive. Among those killed was my Great Uncle Ernest Chafe, age 25. To lend a bit of context, my Dad is his nephew, my Grandfather and Ernest were brothers. For generations after, my family would speak of Ernest with tremendous pride. So I just wanted to visit his final resting place, especially this year, to give him one last cheers before I figured this battle would fade with the end of his generation. So my wife and I made it the centerpiece of what would be a vacation to France. A few days in Paris, a day trip to Beaumont-Hamel on July 1st, take a train back to Paris, then on to the rest of our vacation. We weren’t part of a group tour. We were on our own on a very private pilgrimage.

Right before we left in late-June, I posted to my Twitter page a letter “Uncle Ern” (as Dad calls him) wrote to his mother (my Great-Grandmother) a few days before he died, along with a photo of him in uniform. I thought little of it, just doing my little bit via social media to hold up his name as my family’s personal emblem of the First World War, as the centenary approached. Well it so happened that what I thought was a benign post captivated a lot of attention, at least for that day. Just when I thought the attention had died down, a writer from The Telegram picked up on it and interviewed me by email (I was already in Paris when she contacted me). She graciously published our interview, along with a photo of Ernest and a transcript of his letter. And that was the end of that, I thought.

On July 1st, Joan and I packed a few snacks and readied for our journey of about four hours by bus and train from Paris to Beaumont-Hamel. It was pouring rain when we arrived. But within an hour, the rain stopped, the clouds moved off, the sun appeared, and the temperature soared. It was muggy, damp, a little soggy. I couldn’t help but wonder what the weather was like and how the ground felt back in the day. There were probably about two thousand other people in attendance for the ceremony. There was a part of the site, around the caribou statue, set aside for the speeches and parades – but thankfully we were all left to freely wander through the battlefield and cemetery. It was a funny feeling. I expected to be overcome with emotion, but it never happened. I felt some sadness…sorrow for his lost innocence. He likely had no clue what he was getting himself into. But I felt a sense of pride and honour being there.

Ernest is buried with numerous others in a small cemetery in a corner of the field. There’s a second soldier buried with him, W.T. O’Donnell, a Private with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. It’s believed that the reason these two Privates from different Regiments are buried together is because they were blown to smithereens and whatever body parts were found were placed together. Most likely they died right alongside each other.

Joan took my photo by his grave, I lingered there for a while to take it all in, realizing that I’ll probably never come here again. The battlefield itself is surprisingly not that big. Which made it all the more haunting for me. The trenches are deep and narrow, very distinctive, kind of haphazardly rolling into one another, one just a few feet from the next. I tried hard to imagine more than 800 Newfoundlanders, in addition to who-knows-how-many British and German soldiers all crowded into this relatively small space, hunkered down, scared out of their minds, just feet away from bombs and gunfire. All of the trenches and craters are now filled in with rich green grass. At the ceremony, kids were rolling around in the trenches, laughing and having a ball. Some people sat at the edge of trenches, munching on a sandwich, some on their smartphones. A crowd was in line at the Danger Tree replica to have their photo taken. Selfies were happening all over the place. A part of me felt offended by that at first, but then again this is the 21st century, and what did I expect? For everyone to be on their knees praying and bawling? I quickly got over myself and enjoyed some conversation with a number of people who for some reason seemed attracted to the Chafe name. The questions came at me from all directions. “What Chafe are you?” “Are you from Petty Harbour?” “My mother was a Chafe!” “Who’s your father?” I enjoyed that a lot, and recalled Dad saying a few days earlier, “Uncle Ern would never believe that he’d be remembered 100 years after his death.” And here I was surrounded by strangers trying to find out who he was.

Soon after all of this, and yet again just when I thought all the attention would subside, I received an email from a complete stranger, Laura Martin. She was moved not just by the interview she read in the Telegram, but by the coincidence that her son, Owen, a grade-12 student, had recently received a prestigious scholarship awarded to a select few young people from across Canada. The scholarship recipients would come together as a group and embark on a tour to France to document the legacy of the First World War. As part of the project, the teens would be asked to select a soldier and honour his life in some way, Owen had coincidentally selected Ernest Chafe. But Owen and his family were wondering where to begin. Ideally, they wanted to contact living relatives but didn’t know how to locate them. Then my Telegram interview appeared and they tracked me down. This was no ordinary school project. Upon discovering Ernest’s grave on his trip to France in August, a month after I was there, Owen left mementos at the site, wrote a poem dedicated to Ernest, and prepared a graphite rubbing of the grave. His Mom and I stayed in regular contact over the summer and fall. Our back-and-forth emails were so informative and inviting, that we decided we needed to meet at the end of this leg of Owen’s project (He will be furthering his work next year on Vimy).

So last night, I had the tremendous pleasure of finally meeting Owen and his parents in person. It was his Mom’s perfect idea that we meet at The Rooms, in the section commemorating the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel. It was one of those rare experiences of meeting a stranger yet feeling like we’d known each other for years. It was wonderful. Owen greeted me with a big smile and firm handshake, and his parents were there, all of us all smiles and so excited that we were finally meeting. Owen was carrying an envelope containing a copy of the poem, the graphite rubbing of Ernest’s grave stone, and some hard-to-come-by commemorative pins he set aside for me. I wandered with his family through the exhibit, then invited Owen to read the poem to me. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt, having a 17-old-high school student present with pride and dignity his extraordinary heartfelt work on a member of my family. He and I were complete strangers. I’m probably older than his father. Yet he was so comfortable walking with me and sharing his journey with me.

Those feelings I had when visiting the cemetery earlier this summer, that the significance of Beaumont-Hamel would naturally fade with time, were instantly erased as I sat listening to Owen recite his poem. He told me that over the coming year or more, he would like to visit schools to speak to kids his age and younger about why it’s important for his and future generations to hold up the legacies of our earlier generations. As we were leaving the exhibit, I asked him about his future study or work interest. He said he hasn’t yet decided between studying History, English or Engineering. I told him there’s no reason he couldn’t do all three. Whatever he ends up doing for the rest of his life, I feel confident in saying that if Owen represents our future generations, then we are in excellent hands.

I want to close with the words of the two young men central to this wonderful meeting and as a dedication to my new friends, the Martin Family. First is my Great Uncle Ernest’s letter to his mother, composed June 28th, 2016 when he was 25. It was found among his remains after his death and sent home. It is followed by a poem, a letter to Ernest, written in 2016 by Owen Martin, an unassuming, big-hearted, selfless, giving young man of great character who has discovered an unexpected and lasting link to my family and whose goal it is to give our past a voice. Thank you, Owen.

Ernest Leslie Chafe
No. 709 C Company
1st Royal Newfoundland Regiment

Somewhere in France
June 28th, 1916

My Darling Mother

As this is our battle eve, I thought I would write you a few lines of farewell in case anything should happen to me.

Our regiment tomorrow will be engaged in one of the greatest battles of modern times. I hope and trust that our Battalion won’t be cut up very much and that we will keep up the honour of our country. As for myself, I will do my very best, but if it is willed that I am to go under, I will go with the full consciousness that I died in a good cause. I am in the best of health, and that is a good thing.

I think the Germans will get it hot this time. I feel sure that this battle will go a great way to end this war.

I am only writing this letter, mother dear, in case I am knocked out, but if I survive the battle I will tear it up. I will put it in my pocket enclosed with a few directions as to who to send it to, etc.

I am far from thinking, mother dear, that I will be killed for I am not built that way. But then, as we cannot see the future, fortunately, it teaches us not to be too sure.

So now, mother dear, I will close with love to Father, Jack, Nell, Isabel, Dot and all the bunch; also all uncles and aunts, and hoping to see your dear sweet face again in the near future, and with a boundless faith in Christ’s mercy and salvation.

I remain,
Ever your loving son,

Owen Martin
St. John’s, Newfoundland

From a Newfoundlander to a Newfoundlander

I walk the length of Casey Street arriving at your home,
it stands unassuming, dormant
giving no inclination of the tragedy that rocked its walls
an impact not unlike the shells that rained incessantly around you
it is difficult to absorb the last words you ever wrote,
an innocent letter to your mother
heavy with love, devoid of trepidation
despite your written optimism you would never see her dear face again
never return to Casey Street
or taste the salt stained air of our humble city
for which you made the ultimate sacrifice a century ago
Your service number, 709 is our provincial area code
A sort of coincidental commemoration
For standing in the face of adversity
For Protecting my future as well as that of the free world

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Thanking Professor Wong.

September 8, 2016

A few days ago on the first day of the new school year, I heard a phone-in radio show asking listeners to reflect on the importance of education, and to tell how their lives were influenced by teachers. Here’s my tribute to a teacher who, in a fleeting moment and with a simple and selfless gesture, played a huge role in my life and career direction.

My father is an accountant, my mother trained as a nurse. One sister became an accountant. Another sister trained as a nurse and married a doctor. Meanwhile, all of my high school friends were heading to university to train to become accountants, lawyers, engineers, nurses and physicians. I remember everyone being so enthusiastic about it all. I, the lone musician of the crowd, wasn’t feeling the enthusiasm. But maybe if I enrolled in a pile of science courses. I could be a doctor, I said.

After three semesters, I flunked out of university.

After my two-semester “break” from university, I returned, let go of the prospective medical career, and enrolled in the Faculty of Business to become an accountant. Dad and my sister seemed very happy and successful as accountants. If there was anything at school I didn’t understand, well, I had these great resources at home to get me through. This should be a breeze, I said.

After two semesters, I flunked out of business school.

This wasn’t as bad as flunking out of university, though. So, progress! I could at least stay on campus, take some easier courses to boost my GPA, and make my way back to the business school. So I did. The following fall, I was accepted back.

After one semester, I again flunked out of business school.

I’ll pause the story here for a quick backgrounder. The only kind of study I ever truly enjoyed, from age 8 until I was flailing about in university, was piano. I loved going to my piano teacher’s house every week, I couldn’t wait to grab hold of whatever music he assigned, practise my fingers to the bone, memorize the music and show off my work to him. I also couldn’t wait for my grandparents to come to Sunday dinner, and for my grandfather to get half sauced on post-dinner Drambuie and ask me to play. I’d play him all the oldies from his younger years, and this would go on for a good hour before he’d nod off and snore. In retrospect, it was probably the Drambuie. But I preferred to think that my music relaxed him into his Sunday snooze. Whether for my grandparents, or the local Kiwanis Music competition, or for school concerts, I loved playing piano and worked incredibly hard at it.

When I flunked out of business school (the first time), I quit piano lessons, thinking that would clear more time to study. Gone were the weekly lessons, the challenge, the passion, the competition, the performances, learning something new all of the time. Gone was the thing I loved doing the most, so that I could carve out more time to study something that interested me about as much as it would interest my cat.

Now, back to the story.

When I flunked out of business school (the second time), my musical sacrifice was for naught. That’s when the wind completely left my sails. That’s when I felt left behind the spray of my friends who were coasting smoothly towards their careers and were more distantly out of my reach. The phrase “at the end of my rope” can seem cliché, but I swear I felt it physically. I felt it in my gut and could almost feel it in my hands. The desperation to do something – anything – to somehow keep up with my successful friends and family. I had no other option but to grovel. I never felt like a quitter or a failure. I never skipped a class in business school. But something was terribly wrong. This isn’t who I am. I’m better than this.

And Professor Shu-Lon Wong knew it. Flunking business school back then meant scoring an average grade of under 65%. I missed by one per cent. I remember, as clearly as if it was yesterday (nearly three decades ago), driving numbly to the school on a cold, damp, windy late-afternoon when my grades were released. I climbed the one flight of stairs to the second floor offices and felt like it was the CN Tower, searching for any professor who might cut me some slack, who might listen to me. It must have been late in the day because I remember it was dusk outside, the fall semester had just ended, it was nearing Christmas, and no other professor was in. Except for Professor Wong.

He intimidated me on the one hand with his vast intellect on all things accounting. But I was more taken by his accent, soft-spoken, fluently English with this cool mix of Chinese and British in his speech, and by his calm, gentle, professional demeanour. Hong Kong born, UK educated, somehow made his way to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and on this dreary day was dealing with the likes of me. He had his scarf on, I remember that. Getting ready to leave for the day, maybe for a few weeks. But he gave me his time, only about five minutes, maybe less. But he was incredibly kind and patient. And he gave me the percentage point I needed to stay in school. Just gave it to me. Why? I should have left the building floating on air, but instead I felt terribly guilty about asking for, and getting, something I didn’t deserve or earn. But my guilt quickly turned to determination to invest in that one per cent and make it last a lifetime.

Two years later, I graduated and then spent about seven years working in the accounting field. Armed with a Bachelor of Commerce degree and several years of working with some pretty wild personalities and managing some profoundly difficult work environments, I then had the courage to take my academic, professional and social experiences and apply them to a life as a musician.

No academic strife would follow. I thrived in the Bachelor of Music program. Bachelor and Master degrees in music have been followed by a nearly-completed PhD in Sociology that details careers in music. Seemingly disparate degrees have proven to flow naturally, one into the other, as a stream of consciousness and work experience that I would never have thought possible were it not for one sympathetic professor who breathed just enough air back into my sails to end my drift and nudge me forward. And it was Professor Wong who crossed my mind when many years later I was teaching some courses at the School of Music. There was one student who had been in the program for several years, his graduation held back by a single course he had flunked – the course I was now teaching as the newcomer instructor. He was relentless. He just kept registering for this one course, over and over. I remember the previous course instructor speaking to me of him, saying things like, “He shouldn’t be here. He’ll drive you nuts. He keeps coming back, but just doesn’t try.” As the semester went on, his grades in my course were indeed suffering, but he was there every day. So I spoke with him, simply wanting to know from him where the trouble was. He left me with no doubt about wanting - really wanting - to be a musician, a music educator especially. His passion was palpable, and there was only this one course credit keeping him from realizing his career potential. His other course grades were fine. He wasn’t hauling in scholarships, but nor did he struggle in the other work. Just in this course I was teaching. I spent tutoring time with him outside of class. He barely… and I mean barely… passed my course. But he did it. To my dismay, I remember not one, but two professors of the school telling me later, “That should not have happened.” I couldn’t tell if I was being blamed for going too easy on him, or if he was deemed unworthy of a music degree for some reason.

Those comments turned out to be utterly unwarranted. Just as I was about to start teaching the first class of the next semester, the newly-minted Bachelor of Music walked into the classroom, grasped my hand, looked me square in the eye and said, “Thank you.” He turned and walked out of the room. That was the last I saw of him until a few years later, I was adjudicating a music festival out of town - coincidentally the town where he now works as a teacher. He was in the audience to watch his own students perform for me. Afterward, he came up to me, introduced me to his wife who was expecting their first child. And he thanked me again for our work together.

In a simple good deed as a compassionate educator, Shu-Lon Wong perhaps unwittingly taught me to see past the grade. I’ll never know for sure, but I want to believe that he wouldn’t have done this favour for just anyone. I want to believe that he saw in me not just a distressed student, or not some bumbling kid who didn’t try hard enough, but someone who was maybe out of his element, someone who worked hard, someone who just needed a very small but meaningful nudge that just might make all of the difference. I don’t know what he recognized in me. But I wonder where I’d be today if not for his kind act. And I wonder if long ago he had a teacher who similarly gave him a break when he needed it most, and then passed it on to me. All I know for sure is that how I felt in his office some thirty years ago is something I now instinctively recognize in young people I meet today who are adrift. And the compassion he showed me, that one percentage point which probably meant nothing to his career, meant everything to mine, and by extension maybe to a student or two of mine along the way. And then in turn, maybe one of my students happens to do something to help even just one of their own students along the way. And so on.

Stephen Ivany and David Chafe

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Christopher Bowman and David Chafe

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